In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses is the frequent beneficiary (or victim) of deliberate weather modification schemes perpetuated by various gods and goddesses. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, a mortal (albeit a human with extraordinary magical powers) conjures up a tempest in order to strand on his mystical island a passing ship's crew with his enemies aboard. In literature and myth, only gods and magicians had access to controls over the elements. But in the twentieth century, serious proposals for the deliberate modification of weather and/or climate have come from engineers, futurists or those concerned with counteracting inadvertent climate modification from human activities. Some argue that it would be better or cheaper to counteract inadvertent human impacts on the climate with deliberate schemes rather than to tax polluting activities or to switch to alternative means of economic sustenance. So, while control of the elements has been in the human imagination and literature for millennia, it is only in the waning of the last millennium that humans have proposed serious techniques that might just do the job - or at least could modify the climate, even if all the basic ramifications are not now known, or even knowable.
As early as the mid-1800s, US government meteorologist J. P. Espy put forth a rainmaking proposal to cut and burn vast tracts of forest in order to create columns of heated air to generate clouds and trigger precipitation. In the end, the results of his 'artificial rain' experiments couldn't please everyone and were met with widespread suspicion (Fleming 2007). Such precipitation manipulation schemes continued to be posited and tested by countries over the ensuing century, in tandem with other climate modification proposals. The US President's Science Advisory Committee suggested in 1965 that if warming by CO2 due to the greenhouse effect ever became a problem, the government might take countervailing geo-engineering steps such as spreading a reflective substance across the ocean waters, or sowing particles high in the atmosphere to encourage the formation of reflective clouds. Calculations suggested such steps were feasible, and could cost less than many government programmes (Weart 2008).
In ca. 1960 (the exact date is unknown), authors N. Rusin and L. Flit from the former Soviet Union published a long essay entitled 'Man versus climate'. In this essay the authors, displaying a traditional Russian geographical perspective, claim that 'the Arctic ice is a great disadvantage, as are the permanently frozen soil (permafrost), dust storms, dry winds, water shortages in the deserts, etc.'. And, they go on, 'if we want to improve our planet and make it more suitable for life, we must alter its climate'. But this must not be for hostile purposes, they caution, as 'almost all the huge programmes for changing nature, e.g. the reversal of the flow of northern rivers and the irrigation of Central Asian deserts, envisage improvements in the climate' (Rusin & Flit 1960, p. 17). They recount earlier proposals for dazzling projects such as injecting tiny white particles suspended in space in the path of the solar radiation, to light up the night sky. M. Gorodsky and later V. Cherenkov put forward 'proposals to surround the Earth with a ring of such particles, similar to the ring around Saturn' (in Rusin and Flit 1960). The plan was to create a 12 per cent increase in solar radiation, such that high latitudes would 'become considerably warmer and the seasons would scarcely differ from one another'. And so it goes in this essay, detailing plans to divert rivers from the Arctic to the Russian wheat fields, or from the Mediterranean to irrigate areas in Asian USSR. One ambitious project is to create a 'Siberian Sea' with water taken from the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea areas. Of course, flowery rhetoric with images of blooming now-arid zones stands in stark contrast to the ecological disaster that surrounds the Aral Sea today; environmental degradation is associated with much less ambitious engineering projects (Glazovsky 1990). But the upbeat little pamphlet, written at the height of human technological hubris in the mid-twentieth century, certainly is filled with, if nothing else, entertaining geo-engineering schemes.
Other sets of such schemes have also been part of geo-engineering folklore and include damming the Straits of Gibraltar, the Gulf Stream, the Bering Straits, the Nile or creating a Mediterranean drain back into Central Africa where a 'second Nile' would refill Lake Chad, turning it into the 'Chad Sea' after the Straits of Gibraltar were dammed. However, the authors of such schemes do not emphasise the fact that the current Mediterranean produces a significant fraction of the salty water that sinks and becomes intermediate depth water in the North Atlantic, only to rise again in the high North Atlantic, in the Iceland-Norwegian Sea areas, making that part of the world's oceans sufficiently salty that surface water sinks to the bottom at several degrees Celsius above freezing. In that process of sinking, approximately half the bottom waters of the world's oceans are formed. The Gulf Stream's surface water that flows into the higher latitudes of the northeastern North Atlantic and into Scandinavia allows northwestern Europe to enjoy a more moderate climate relative to that of, say, Hudson Bay. The latter, at the same latitude, does not have the benefit of the salty waters and the Gulf Stream's penetration high into the North Atlantic, which inhibits sea ice formation and contributes to a milder climate.
Other examples of attempts to modify the atmosphere, but for a different purpose, followed from the first use of the word 'geo-engineering' of which I am aware. This term was informally coined in the early 1970s by Cesare Marchetti (and formally published at the invitation of the editor of Climatic Change in its inaugural issue as Marchetti 1977). Marchetti outlined his thesis:
The problem of CO2 control in the atmosphere is tackled by proposing a kind of 'fuel cycle' for fossil fuels where CO2 is partially or totally collected at certain transformation points and properly disposed of. CO2 is disposed of by injection into suitable sinking thermohaline currents that carry and spread it into the deep ocean that has a very large equilibrium capacity. The Mediterranean undercurrent entering the Atlantic at Gibraltar has been identified as one such current; it would have sufficient capacity to deal with all CO2 produced in Europe even in the year 2100.
About the same time Russian climatologist Mikhail Budyko expanded on this theme of geo-engineering, also for the purpose of counteracting inadvertent climate modification:
If we agree that it is theoretically possible to produce a noticeable change in the global climate by using a comparatively simple and economical method, it becomes incumbent on us to develop a plan for climate modification that will maintain existing climatic conditions, in spite of the tendency toward a temperature increase due to man's economic activity.
The possibility of using such a method for preventing natural climatic fluctuations leading to a decrease in the rate of the hydrological cycle in regions characterized by insufficient moisture is also of some interest.
Fortunately, Budyko does go on to apply the appropriate caveat: 'The perfection of theories of climate is of great importance for solving these problems, since current simplified theories are inadequate to determine all the possible changes in weather conditions in different regions of the globe that may result from modifications of the aerosol layer of the stratosphere.' What Budyko proposed is a stratospheric particle layer to reflect away enough sunlight to counteract heat trapping from anthropogenic greenhouse warming. Obviously, he believed that deliberate climate modification would be premature before the consequences could be confidently precalculated.
Anticipating the increasing calls for deliberate climate modification as a geo-engineering countermeasure for the advent or prospect of inadvertent climate modification, William Kellogg and I raised a number of aspects of this issue that had only been hinted at by previous authors. After summarising a whole host of such schemes, we concluded:
One could go on with such suggestions, some to cool and some to warm vast regions of the earth, some to change the patterns of rainfall, some to protect from damaging storms, and so forth. They could be used to improve the current climate (for some) or to offset a predicted deterioration of climate (for some), whether the deterioration was natural or man-induced ... We believe that it would be dangerous to pursue any large-scale operational climate control schemes until we can predict their long-term effects on the weather patterns and the climate with some acceptable assurance. We cannot do so now, and it will be some time - if ever - before we can. To tamper with a system that determines the livelihood and life-styles of people the world over would be the height of irresponsibility if we could not adequately foresee the outcome. However, we recognize that this may not be the opinion of some, especially those who live in the affected regions where a prediction of climatic change could be a forecast of local disaster if the predicted change were not offset.
(Kellogg & Schneider 1974)
We went on to argue that some people could even consider use of climate modification as an overt or clandestine weapon against economic or political rivals, and that that prospect might require the need for an international treaty. We noted that the potential for disputes would be very high since any natural weather disaster occurring during the time that some group was conducting deliberate climate modification experiments could lead those affected by that disaster to make accusations that the climate modifiers were responsible for that event. Courts could be clogged with expert witnesses testifying on the one hand how the deliberate intervention could not possibly have caused some unusual hurricane or '300-year flood', followed by other witnesses (perhaps the same ones collecting double fees?) turning around and testifying for the other side that current knowledge is insufficient to rule out the possibility that a geo-engineering scheme in one part of the world might very well have affected some extreme event on the other side of the world. We concluded, only partially tongue in cheek, that:
We have raised many more questions than we are even remotely capable of answering, but we do wish to offer one 'modest' proposal for 'no-fault climate disaster insurance.' If a large segment of the world thinks the benefits of a proposed climate modification scheme outweigh the risks, they should be willing to compensate those (possibly even a few of themselves) who lose their favored climate (as defined by past statistics), without much debate as to whether the losers were negatively affected by the scheme or by the natural course of the climate. After all, experts could argue both sides of cause and effect questions and would probably leave reasonable doubts in the public's mind...
(Kellogg & Schneider 1974)
A number of people picked up the geo-engineering issue on and off in the 20 years since. For example, Schelling (1983) pointed out that world economic development was not going to pay much attention to global warming prospects given the Realpolitik of population and economic growth advocates within the political establishments in nearly all countries. Schelling concluded that, should global warming prove to be as significant as some climatologists or ecologists feared plausible, then perhaps we should consider geo-engineering as a cost-effective and politically acceptable alternative to energy taxes or fuel switching (which could spell the politically unpalatable demise of the coal industry, for example).
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