The challenge of weather modification in the face of climate change

Over the past decades we have been able to observe a change in the Earth’s climate, caused by an increase in the amount of energy retained in the atmosphere. This in turn has affected weather systems around the world, causing more extreme weather. As a result, the possibility of controlling the weather has become more important than ever for countries most directly affected by rain and extreme winds. Although the concept of weather modification is not new, it has mainly focused on rather limited aspects, such as seeding clouds to increase precipitation.

Recent proposals such as Japan’s Moon Weather Modification Program seek to find ways to prevent or reduce the impact of torrential rains, typhoons and similar extreme weather events that accompany climate change. This proposal is part of Japan’s multi-thematic Moonshot R&D program which seeks to advance the state-of-the-art in a wide range of fields in a very significant way by 2050. With regard to weather modification, this naturally raises many questions. It’s clear that we are able to influence the climate through greenhouse gas emissions and large-scale construction, but are there ways in which humans can influence climate and weather in a more subtle way that benefits society, or is this something that will stay beyond that? Our understanding of the foreseeable future?

Definition of weather

The global circulation of the Earth's atmosphere shows the Hadley cell, Ferrel cell, and polar cell along with the trade winds.  (Writer: Kaydor, NASA)
Global circulation of the Earth’s atmosphere: The Hadley cell, Ferrel cell, and polar cell are all shown along with the trade winds. (Writer: Kaydor, NASA)

Weather is defined as the condition of the atmosphere, which includes factors such as temperature and humidity levels, as well as disturbances such as winds and hurricanes. The driving forces behind weather are the differences between air pressure, temperature and humidity between different parts of the atmosphere, with each parameter determined by a number of different inputs, such as the angle of that part of the planet towards the sun, available surface water and humidity. Weather systems in the vicinity, where the sun’s heat input provides much of the momentum in this system.

The main difference between climate and weather is that the former is fairly constant, and relates primarily to large-scale systems including atmospheric circulation and ocean currents. These circulation patterns set the parameters for what ultimately turns into weather through locally current temperatures, humidity, and winds. As a chaotic system, most weather models rely on historical trends, along with inputs from sensors that constantly feed temperatures, humidity levels, and many other parameters into the weather simulation.

Major currents in the ocean.  (Credit: Dr. Michael Piedwerny)
Major currents in the ocean. (Credit: Dr. Michael Piedwerny)

This ensures a fairly accurate forecast for the next few days, but as the amount of energy in this system increases (global temperature rise) or decreases (e.g. ice age), historical weather trends become less important, due to fundamental aspects such as the flow rate of the Gulf Stream changes, Which in turn changes the distribution of thermal energy and humidity and thus local weather patterns.

Thus the basic summary of weather is that it is driven primarily by the amount of thermal energy in the system, which itself depends on both the amount of solar radiation and the proportion of this energy that is ultimately retained within the Earth’s atmosphere, surface, and oceans. Instead of radiating it back into space.

In order to change or control the weather, it is necessary to influence these processes in some way. When we look at the practice of cloud seeding to induce precipitation, it involves adding more nuclei to certain clouds (or fog) around which moisture can collect before it falls to the surface. Here the weather system does not fundamentally change to achieve this effect. Although the moisture extracted from the clouds cannot turn into rain or snow anywhere else now, as cloud seeding stops, the system should return to its previous state.

Weather vs. climate change

Annual surface temperature compared to the 20th century average from 1880 to 2022. Blue bars indicate cooler than average years;  Red bars show years warmer than average.  (Credit: Noah)
Annual surface temperature compared to the 20th century average from 1880 to 2022. Blue bars indicate cooler than average years; Red bars show years warmer than average. (Credit: Noah)

As noted in the previous sections, there has been a net increase in the amount of thermal energy trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, causing changes in the Earth’s climate. Because of this change, it means that the weather changes with it. With more energy in the system, this leads to more evaporation in warmer areas, resulting in more intense rainfall where atmospheric cells meet cooler air, as well as overall dryness and stronger winds. This threatens not only people’s safety, but also everything from agriculture to infrastructure.

However, although these considerations are considered new by many, weather and climate modification has been a topic for many decades, with the 1965 report submitted by the Special Committee on Weather Modification (PDF) to the National Science Foundation (NSF) providing a glimpse into each of these Considerations. Focus and the latest technology at the time. This follows a 1979 report issued by the Secretary of Commerce in response to the National Weather Modification Policy Act that sought to evaluate options available more than a decade after the report to the National Science Foundation.

Although the benefits of climate control are clear, as it allows humanity to prevent natural disasters and improve the weather for agriculture and other human activities, both reports duly point out that humanity is so far better at changing the climate without intending to do so. Human cities and forest clearings create heat islands, while the burning of fossil fuels and industrial activity add pollutants to the atmosphere that increase the heat-retaining properties of the Earth’s atmosphere as a whole, thus raising global temperatures.

Interestingly, the 1979 report covers experiments on hurricane mitigation (Project Stormfury) that used seeding hurricanes (tropical cyclones) with silver iodide in the hope that this would reduce their strength. This was based on the theory that such hurricanes contain enough supercooled water that might respond to seeding, thus disrupting the hurricane structure. This theory turned out to be incorrect, but it would provide valuable information about these tropical cyclones.

It is assumed that rising ocean temperatures could increase the frequency and strength of hurricanes and tropical storms, but so far there is still a lot of uncertainty about the impact here, mostly due to how poorly we understand how tropical cyclones form and acquire. power.

Land reclamation

Taken in context, Japan’s weather modification moonshot program seems rather ambitious, even if the need for it is clear. We are seeing more severe storms, more droughts, and as a result more wildfires and floods. Some countries such as the United States and China are investing heavily in cloud seeding as a means of extracting more rain from clouds, but this raises questions about the long-term feasibility and overall effectiveness of such an approach. On the other hand, preventing heavy rains and floods is still beyond our capabilities, and beyond designing cities and waterways in rural areas so that they are not submerged by large amounts of water.

Illustration of different intervention techniques in the field of solar climate.  (Credit: NOAA/CERIS)
Illustration of different intervention techniques in the field of solar climate. (Credit: NOAA/CERIS)

Among the most extreme proposals for modifying the weather is solar geoengineering, which essentially entails blocking part of sunlight, combined with carbon dioxide extraction.2 of the atmosphere (carbon geoengineering), which to this day remains a very controversial issue with no clear (effective) approach to achieving it. Meanwhile, the concept of blocking sunlight with aerosols in the troposphere, along with other extreme proposals, has met with significant resistance.

Perhaps what is important here is that the only aspect of the Earth’s climate that we seem to have strong control over is greenhouse gas pollution, most of which results from the use of fossil fuels and industrial processes. Reducing pollution there using any means available is something we can start doing today, as was already demonstrated in the 1970s in the United States, France, Sweden, Norway and Ontario through the use of hydro and nuclear power. Even countries like China, which is often rebuked for its use of fossil fuels such as coal, are rapidly increasing the share of low-carbon energy, with China looking to surpass the number of nuclear plants in the United States today (92) with more than fifty underground. Construction or planning, as well as the massive build-out of renewable solar, wind and hydropower capacity.


As much as we’d like to control the weather, including storms, typhoons, tornadoes and gentle summer rains, there’s a reason why Japan’s Moonshot program is so named and is targeting 2050 as a hopeful date for achieving any of the goals. I set out to achieve it. The Earth’s atmosphere and oceans are enormous after all, with the enormous energy behind its circulatory systems and the resulting currents and weather far beyond what we can reasonably hope to control.

This leaves us to think about what we have control over, which is essentially reducing the pollution mentioned above, as well as changing cities and other areas affected by human activity to change their albedo and reduce moisture loss via evaporation. This can be achieved by planting trees, restoring forests and greening cities while taking into account rainwater capture and retention. Although not as futuristic as modifying the weather using fancy machines and weather control networks as seen in Star Trek, these methods have proven effective and are available to us today.

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