“Thanks to a system of satellites, natural disasters have become a thing of the past,” declares the President of the United States in the new doomsday flick Geostorm. “We can control our weather." Welcome to a fantastical future where the federal government has taken aggressive action against climate change, successfully mastering the whims of weather using advanced satellite technology.
But when this global network of satellites mysteriously malfunctions, catastrophic weather threatens humanity’s very existence. Rows of tornadoes rip up the landscape, tsunami-sized waves sweep through cities, massive hailstones crash through car windows, and flash-frozen birds fall out of the sky. And that’s just what you see in trailers.
The plot goes on to get raveled into conspiracies and last-ditch space missions, but as with climate disaster flicks like 2012 (when the feared Yellowstone volcano erupts), The Day After Tomorrow (when New York City turns into a frozen tundra), or Snowpiercer (when a climate experiment fails, killing all but a select few) the question remains: Could any of these apocalypse scenarios actually happen?
Fortunately, at least in the case of Geostorm, the answer is: Not likely.
Based on the trailer, how exactly Geostorm’s satellites control the weather remains largely unclear. Smithsonian.com reached out to Warner Brothers to speak to any consulting scientists, but none were available. These high-tech space gadgets seem to be able to pinpoint disasters and take action to stop them in their tracks. One device appears to hurdle some sort of storm-stopping bullets into a hurricane. (Note: As Florida's Pasco County Sheriff cautioned during hurricane Irma, shooting bullets definitely cannot stop a storm, but can do real harm to living beings.) Another sends a broiling, hot laser beam to Earth.
The vision of a future where humans have mastered the weather is not new. Scientific efforts to rule the rain began in the United States sometime during the late 1800s, when a series of droughts desiccated great swaths of the nation. But the idea truly took hold during the Cold War era, when concerns swirled over the potential weaponization of weather.
"There actually was a weather race with the Russians, not just the space race," explains James R. Fleming, researcher at Colby College and author of the book Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. At the time, fears flared on both sides of the ocean that a weather war was looming.
In 1953, Congress established the Advisory Committee on Weather Control, a two-year study of the feasibility of weather control to determine how much the government should invest in research. The study led to several projects that attempted to refine such capabilities. One example, Project Popeye, was aimed at "seeding" the clouds over southeast Asia so rain would impede truck traffic between North and South Vietnam.
"He who controls the weather, controls the world," said then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in a 1962 address at Southwest Texas State University. (The quote had been oft-cited prior, but LBJ brought it into the stratosphere.)
Though the quote has stoked many conspiracy theories—and served as fodder for the Geostorm advertising campaign—the ability to exact control over the weather remains foggy at best.
Momentarily setting aside the limitations of current satellite technology, the idea of making such massive localized changes in weather runs counter to the basics of atmospheric science, explains Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist in the department of Global Ecology at Carnegie Institution for Science.
"The atmosphere is a big connected thing," he says. "The idea you're going to poke it and create some big perturbation in one location and that's going to be isolated—it just [isn't] how the atmosphere actually works." It’s akin to the myth that weight loss can target a particular part of your body; the entire system is interconnected, which makes it impossible to pinpoint just one section.
That's not to say scientists aren't investigating possibilities. Caldeira is an outspoken advocate for funding geoengineering research, a field centered on the idea that we can use climate or weather modification technologies to slow climate change. The most commonly proposed mechanisms are either sucking up and storing carbon dioxide, or creating large-scale modifications of the environment to prevent the slow heating of our globe.
But, as Caldeira notes, current technologies would accomplish this goal in a far less exacting—or exciting—manner than the fix shown in Geostorm. A 2015 meeting of the National Academies of Sciences even proposed that these technologies be grouped under the category "climate intervention" rather than "geoengineering" to more accurately characterize their limitations. "'Engineering' is too precise to call the speculation that is going on," says Fleming, who was part of the 2015 meeting.
So what does this tech look like? There are a range of ideas floating around. One suggestion is that we could "seed" low-lying marine clouds with a fine spray of sea salt. This would supposedly encourage the development of billowing plumes whose bleach-white color could reflect the hot rays of the sun. Another idea involves fiddling with the chemistry of the ocean, fertilizing the seas with iron dust in an effort to draw down carbon in blooms of algae.
Other researchers, including Caldeira, believe the better tactic would be to recreate the effects of a large volcanic explosion. During these natural events, the massive plumes of sulfur that erupt into the skies reflect some of the sun’s radiation away from Earth, slightly cooling the planet. “After every major volcano of the past half century or so, there’s cooling the following year,” says Caldeira. For example, in 1992, a year after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, scientists estimated that the surface of the Northern Hemisphere cooled around 1 degree Fahrenheit due to the volcanic emissions.
Of course, these kinds of drastic ideas are not without criticism and concerns. While almost all are all in the earliest stages of development, scientists are already beginning to address the potential risks and unintended consequences. This year researchers at Harvard took the first tentative steps towards evaluating the risks and feasibility of mimicking volcanoes on a small scale.
"Fear of solar geoengineering is entirely healthy," Harvard geoengineers David Keith and Gernot Wagner wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian earlier this year in response to coverage of the solar aerosol research. But at the same time, they caution against letting these fears—or, for that matter, doomsday movies such as Geostorm—"distort discussions" about geoengineering research.
Opponents of the technology have long voiced the worry that focusing on large scale geoengineering schemes could divert much-needed attention and funding from the actual challenge at hand: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But as Caldeira explains, geoengineering would be a last-ditch way to lessen suffering from the predicted droughts, crop failures, and intensification of extreme weather that researchers worry climate change may bring. “But that doesn't make a good movie,” he jokes.
As for the advances in satellite tech, there's little on the horizon that promises to bring the whirling weather under our power. Nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, scientist James Early suggested parking a "constellation of satellites" between Earth and the sun to reduce the solar radiation striking our planet, says Caldeira. It was a nice thought. But the math didn’t work out then, and it doesn't now.
"To offset the warming from a doubling of CO2 from Earth orbit, you would need to have 10 million square kilometers of satellite area, which is pretty damn huge," he says. "If you were trying to build this over 50 years, you would need to build about 1 square kilometer of satellite every 3 minutes over that time period."
More recently, Ross Hoffman, principal scientist and vice president of Atmospheric and Environment Research, is investigating the possibility of redirecting hurricanes with the use of, among other possibilities, microwaves beamed to Earth from one or more solar-fueled satellites. "It's basically an orbiting death ray," Fleming notes about the technology. Using computer modeling, Hoffman has shown that by heating the vapors in or around the storm, researchers could weaken the hurricane’s winds or redirect it from shore.
But for now, at least, these ideas are all theoretical. We rely on satellites for a range of things—from communication to navigation to weather prediction. They take beautiful pictures of Earth and help researchers from diverse fields study the planet.
For any global plan that involves manipulating the weather from above, there is a much more simple, easier and controllable way of accomplishing the same goal, says Caldeira. "Even if you could produce these big localized changes, the idea that you are not going to inadvertently create huge changes somewhere else just doesn't seem physically plausible," he says.
Doing so would risk creating—dare I say—a geostorm.