Most of the American public take for granted what is happening in the air above them. Most of us don’t know that once, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, migrating flocks of birds would darken the sky for days. Looking up is a complicated perceptive and intuitive skill that many humans have lost. We don’t have much reason to look up anymore—to predict what the weather might bring us or to tell the time of day or to use the sun or moon for directions to travel. We don’t need to look up with the seasons’ accumulated knowledge and notice the changing light and the necessity to think back and forward in time for that year and predict the first frost, when to sow crops or the onset of seasonal thunderstorms that will water the crops. The stars are obscured by pollution, we check the weather on our smart phones. If we do look up, it is to see skyscrapers, fireworks, when we hear a fighter jet, to see advertisements or marriage proposals sprayed by an airplane.
While we have lost touch with agrarian weather sensitivity, a new sense of weather disaster sensitivity has replaced it. Climate change, natural disasters, and (sub)urban apocalypse have become familiar specters. Whether through cautiously grim government speeches, wild media speculation, or the reality show Doomsday Preppers, we are told, more or less, what to buy for a family of four to survive for however many days. We 19 know who to call, what websites to check on our smartphones (for as long as they’ll hold a charge). We know who we are meant to trust and who we are meant to fear.
In the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in the U.S., many of us were glued to our televisions and computers, waiting for the most accurate and up-to-date predictions and survival tips (while remaining, for the most part, unaware that Sandy was flooding the homes and USAID tents of thousands of Haitians, inducing mudslides, killing dozens of people and sparking renewed fears of cholera epidemic and food shortages). In a media-induced panic, many on the East Coast spent those days in a consumerist frenzy of “prepping”—fighting traffic to get to the nearest grocery store to clear the shelves of toilet paper, bottled water, dry and canned food, candles, and batteries. Wealthier families holed up in hotels in Baltimore in case of power outages, presumably with the idea that hotels would have generators.
Sandy demonstrated what ecologists and activists like Mike Tidwell (author of the 2007 book The Ravaging Tide) have warned us about: that a combination of the right storm and high tide would devastate U.S. coastal cities. It also revealed the multiple facets of fear evoked by climate change, not only in terms of catastrophic weather but also the kinds of ecological, social, and political crises it will produce.
As the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy continues to unfold, uneven effects are apparent. In the U.S., many in the hurricane’s predicted path have now shoved their candles and batteries in a junk drawer for the next Frankenstorm or Snowpocalypse. The denizens of battered beachside resorts will, for the most part, take their flood insurance money and rebuild. Meanwhile, thousands of low-income people and public-housing residents remain in precarious situations, homeless or without basic necessities like heat and clean water.
Globally, as weather becomes more extreme, the poor and the politically vulnerable will continue to pay the highest price of climate change. Discrepancies in media coverage of post-Katrina New Orleans reveal some of the fault lines: White survivors were often portrayed as “finding supplies” and black survivors as looters, criminalized and targeted by the police and the National Guard. At the same time, transnational corporations will profit from superstorms, drought, sea rise, and other effects of climate change. As Vandana Shiva’s book Water Wars details, the privatization of water resources is a growing concern, particularly in the global South, where the commodification of water is being pushed by the World Bank and IMF — causing rising prices, decreased access and issues with quality deterioration.
However, the rhetoric of “natural disaster” and “acts of nature” conveys the sense that these things are always beyond our power, that the weather is completely external to effect or intervention. In the growing struggle for ecological and social equity, we must pay attention to the ways in which the U.S. military, affiliated corporations, and governing structures, along with other collaborative and/or competing countries, have been experimenting, researching, and modifying the weather for at least the past 60 years.
Despite dire warnings, a new Global Carbon Project study shows that global greenhouse gas emissions hit an all-time high last year, with no indication of a future decrease. Given that the weather is being modified by the daily actions of the world’s 7 billion human inhabitants—though significantly more so by the global North and its corporations—the idea of fixing what we have wrought by adding more science to the mix is appealing: It’s all right that we broke the sky, as long as we can control it!
As we continue to make the prospect of abrupt climate change increasingly inevitable, will weather control become an attractive option? Will it be a possibility?
There are publicly accessible and accepted conversations happening in the scientific and policy making communities about possible uses of weather modification to offset global warming. The use of cloud seeding to aid agriculture and reservoirs is a common, though scientifically dubious, practice. Weather control is a common plot device in science fiction, showing up in films like The Avengers, shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek, the Michael Crichton novel State of Fear, Judge Dredd comics and so forth. The idea of complete control over the weather—the ability to press a button for a sunny day or send a localized blizzard over an enemy army—remains the stuff of science fiction, but science fiction has often functioned as a way to imagine and inspire future possibilities. Even so, most people who speak publicly about weather modification programs are dismissed as conspiracy theorists.
Thousands of aircraft fill U.S. skies each day. Above any U.S. city, the suburbs, and in rural areas aircraft can be seen flying in grids and emitting what the government names as “contrails” and conspiracy theorist deem “chemtrails.” The popularized conception of “chemtrails” implies that at least some aircraft emissions contain chemical agents towards weather control aims, among other ideas. Perhaps the prevalence of chemtrails in conspiracy theories is precisely because of the ability to locate them empirically, to locate them as a visible sign of the possibility of more insidious, less visible ecological interventions. It is unknown if these thousands of aircraft are emitting the exhaust of jet fuel or they are spraying something into the atmosphere. But the perpetual “clouds” that these aircraft create most likely contribute to the ongoing devastation of Earth’s systemic ecologies—humans need vitamin D and plants, plants need light to optimally photosynthesize, squirrels need the nuts and nest leaves that trees make.
When it became apparent that Sandy would hit the East Coast, conspiracy theorists hypothesized that the Obama administration made this happen deliberately to showcase an effective response by the National Guard and FEMA before the election, contrasting favorably with the Bush administration’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in 2005. While it may seem “crazy” that conspiracy theorists speculate that a U.S. president would have the power and technology create and steer hurricanes for political gain, it seems more useful to not simply dismiss this because it sounds “crazy,” but begin to ask the hard questions. Why are so many of us are willing to call it “crazy” without any questioning as to why such “crazy” claims are being made? The ability, if it exists or could exist, for the government and military to manufacture and control weather is indeed a frightening thought—especially if you’re of the mindset that governments and their militaries (or militaries and their governments) have and never will be benevolent.
For decades, large sectors of the U.S. public trusted the government and banking industry because times were good enough for the voices and bodies that count in our society—those who pointed to the financial conditions that predicted the economic crises of 2008 were often deemed conspiracy theorists or extremists. But after all the lost homes, jobs, retirement accounts, health, and consumption futures for millions of middle class and respectable working class Americans, looking up the economic chain became not only necessary, but a normal public discourse almost everyone was familiar with. What do we have to lose by questioning and investigating claims of “crazy” conspiracy theorists, that weather can or will be manufactured and possibly controlled by military and governing forces? What do we have to lose by not questioning the realities and potentialities of weather control in the hands of classified military research and applications, and the corporate privatized partnerships that produce these capabilities?
How do we begin talking about the historical and contemporary realities of weather control and modification in a way that doesn’t rely on fear and ignorance? How do we think about weather modification in way that garners capabilities for large-scale transnational public discussions about the future of the planet and its weather and water systems? What will it take for us to start looking up, up into the sky and up into the ranks researching, modifying, patenting, and privatizing water and weather? Will we need our homes flooded or torn apart by storms? Will we need to become thirstier for the disappearing water tables than for our oversized homes and high definition television sets?
Conspiracy theorists claim that it is possible to create and steer (intentionally direct) super storms, as well as induce earthquakes by the use of ionospheric “heaters.” Whether or not it is in the business of producing super storms, such an ionospheric heater exists, located in Gakona, Alaska, and owned by the Department of Defense. The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) publicly claims itself as an ionospheric research center, beaming millions of watts of electricity into the earth’s ionosphere to research high frequency long-distance radio waves used in everyday applications such as GPS and trans-oceanic communications systems. The ionosphere is a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere which protects the planet from solar radiation.
Theories about HAARP, ranging from speculations about mind control, earthquakes, and atmospheric weather, are rampant on the Internet. Conspiracy theorists believe that HAARP may be used in the production of hurricanes because of the relationship between ionization and electrification of the atmosphere and storm production. Some claim that by beaming millions of watts of electricity into the ionosphere, Department of Defense scientists are attempting to mimic solar flares—and that solar flares have the capability to cause extreme weather events. A common theory argues that chemtrails are a component of HAARP research, and contain metal particles that enhance electricity in the atmosphere.
HAARP-induced storms have been imagined as weapons of war and directed disaster that can be used for social control and economic gain (for example through the project of rebuilding). While the idea may seem unbelievable, it may be more useful to focus on potential uses and applications of such technology, rather than its unimaginability. No one could have imagined the atomic bomb or the invention of plastics until they were indeed imagined and produced. We already know that cloud seeding was used in the Vietnam War to induce flooding, that places in Iraq were bombed by the U.S and its allies and then later rebuilt by affiliated corporations, and that major natural disasters have been produced by gentrification and forced migration. As the atmosphere and its water systems become increasingly privatized—two domains which humans have never inhabited, but which all life absolutely depends upon—we will have to grapple with how to create public discourse which will strive to democratize geoengineering to mitigate the effects of climate change.
It is startling how much researchers and governments have tried to do to gain control over the weather, in documented, public fact. Cloud seeding, the practice of injecting materials such as dry ice or sodium chloride into a cloud to induce precipitation, has been taken up as a way to increase and control rainfall, and to abate fog and hail. As James Fleming describes in The Climate Engineers, during the early years of the Cold War “it was hoped that cloud seeding could be used surreptitiously to release the violence of the atmosphere against an enemy, tame the winds in the service of an all-weather air force, or, on a larger scale, perhaps disrupt (or improve) the agricultural economy of nations and alter the global climate for strategic purposes.” Indeed, cloud seeding was used between 1967 and 1972 in a program known as “Operation POPEYE.” At an annual cost of $3.6 million, the Department of Defense worked to induce rain over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with the goal of reducing Viet Cong mobility.
In 1976, after the leaking of the Pentagon Papers and the revelation of Operation POPEYE, the U.N. General Assembly passed the “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques” to prohibit “any technique for changing—through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes—the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.”
Despite this, a study compiled for the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1990s, titled “Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025,” suggests that the U.S. military has a potentially ongoing interest in controlling the weather. This weather control report is a 44-page chapter of the nearly 3,300-page Air Force 2025, a research project tasked by the Air Force chief of staff to “identify the concepts, capabilities, and technologies the United States will require to remain the dominant air and space force in the 21st century.” It states that the UN resolution has “not halted the pursuit of weather-modification research” but instead produced “a primary focus on suppressive versus intensification activities.” “Owning the Weather” proposed numerous applications for weather modification to subdue and manipulate enemy forces as well as to enhance offensive tactics in combat. The report describes weather modification as a “high-risk, high-reward endeavor,” offering “a dilemma not unlike the splitting of the atom.”
If the military’s far-fetched dreams came true, weather control would have dangerously anti-democratic implications far beyond the battlefield. If rain and drought can be controlled and regulated, commodity market speculation on prices of wheat, corn, cotton, soy and many other crops can be further manipulated. This could have further effects on the price speculation of beef, pork, oils, and other products. If the weather can be modified, so too can water supplies, and with them, the basis for all life on Earth.
Look up, look around and look often. James Fleming asks, “If, as history shows, fantasies of weather and climate control have chiefly served commercial and military interests, why should we expect the future to be different?” At times, it seems difficult to expect a future at all.