Can We Control the Weather?

Can we control the weather?ABCNews Photo Illustration

Why don't we just wrap the entire solar system in aluminum foil so we can capture every bit of energy released by the sun, and use that power to rebuild Earth and even re-engineer our neighboring terrestrial planets?

That idea sounds almost as crazy today as it did half a century ago, when it was first proposed by one of the world's most creative thinkers. But in some ways, we're moving closer.

No one is talking about building the "Dyson Sphere" that astrophysicist Freeman Dyson conceptualized so long ago, but some thought is being given to far out ideas that could move us closer to taking control of our planet.

But are they feasible? Can we really figure out how to use orbiting solar power plants to deflate and redirect hurricanes? Can we build mini-volcanoes that will flood the upper atmosphere with tiny particles to help shield us from the sun and curb global warming? Can we eliminate major earthquakes?

Geo-Engineering: Has Its Time Come?

It's called geo-engineering, and for a long time it wasn't taken seriously. But some scientists have warned that our unintentional alteration of global climate means we can make a difference. If we can make Earth warmer without even trying to do so, we may be able to make it cooler. No possible solutions, they say, should be automatically taken off the table, even if they sound a bit nutty.

But the problems with each of these ideas begins at the most basic level. We don't understand enough about our planet and its atmosphere to try to re-engineer it without grave risks, according to testimony before the U.S. Congress. It took scientists decades just to realize we were changing Earth's climate by releasing greenhouse gasses.

"The growing evidence that human activities can affect the weather on scales ranging from local to global has added a new and important dimension to the place of weather modification in the field of atmospheric sciences," Michael Garstang, chairman of a research committee appointed by the National Academies of Science and Engineering, testified before a congressional committee in 2005. "There is a need, more urgent than ever, to understand the fundamental processes related to intentional and unintentional changes in the atmosphere."

Using Solar Energy to Redirect Hurricanes Away From the Coastline?

There have been many attempts to change the weather, but all of them, with the possible exception of cloud seeding to produce rain, have failed or been inconclusive. But maybe these early pioneers just weren't thinking on a grand enough scale.

Try this one on for size:

A series of large orbiting satellites could capture enough solar energy to redirect hurricanes away from coastlines, and possibly reduce the strength of the winds.

The idea is to pound parts of the atmosphere with microwaves, changing the thermal difference between the top and the bottom of the storm and thus weakening the eye. That theoretically should cause the most damaging winds to decrease. Some have suggested that a similar technique might be used to "side steer" a hurricane and keep it from making landfall.

Plans to Manipulate Hurricanes Fail to Appreciate Power of Tropical Cyclones

A small company in Manhattan Beach, Calif., called Solaren, has applied for a patent for its "invention" that company officials say could do just that. But a patent at this point is merely an effort to protect intellectual property rights, and it doesn't mean we can forget about hurricanes in the future.

Solaren gets some attention, though. It has signed a contract to produce the first orbiting solar power plant, with which it hopes to collect solar energy in space where the sun is always shining and beam it back to Earth.

Its partner in that effort is the northern California utility giant, PG&E.

Orbiting solar power plants may be a step toward manipulating hurricanes, but experts seriously doubt such a plan would work. The National Hurricane Center has received so many calls about this and similar plans to control hurricanes that it forwarded a canned statement from Chris Landsea, a scientist with the organization.

"As carefully reasoned as some of these suggestions are, they all share the same shortcoming: They fail to appreciate the size and power of tropical cyclones," Landsea said. He adds that the kinetic energy of the wind at any instant in a major hurricane is "equivalent to that released by a nuclear warhead."

Scientists Propose Mitigating Global Warming With Pollution

The federal government tried its own hand at modifying hurricanes 40 years ago, which helps explain its skepticism. Project Stormfury seeded clouds just outside the eyewall of four hurricanes from 1961 to 1971 to see if a secondary storm could draw energy away from the twister. It didn't work, partly because scientists didn't fully understand the dynamics of a hurricane.

So for now, hurricane manipulation is beyond our control, but what about global warming, a potentially greater long-term problem? Is it possible we could take control of the atmosphere that we've damaged so severely?

Here's an idea that Dyson should like. In 2006, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen proposed shooting sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect some of the sun's energy away from Earth, thus mitigating global warming. Nature has already done that. Major volcanic eruptions pollute the sky so much that they can temporarily reduce global temperatures, so why not put a bunch more stuff up there and ignore the damage we've already caused?

Climate Control Plans Promise Easy Way Out

The University of East Anglia took a look at all the "schemes" that have been proposed to lessen global warming, and concluded that "stratospheric aerosol injections and sunshades in space have by far the greatest potential to cool the climate by 2050, but also carry the greatest risk."

Injecting sulfur or other manufactured particles into the stratosphere could bring the climate back to pre-industrial levels, but if for any reason the process was stopped, Earth would immediately turn into an oven, the researchers concluded.

Incidentally, Crutzen has since suggested that he didn't expect policymakers to take his idea seriously. He just wanted to "startle" them, he told a reporter during a climate conference in Kenya, and get them to think more seriously about geo-engineering.

Skeptics say the biggest problem with all these schemes is they promise an easy way out. Continue polluting the air as we have the past century, and put even more pollution up there to offset what we've already added, and maintain a steady course. Don't worry about cutting back on emissions.

Seismologist Hatched Plan to Prevent Earthquakes

So, maybe we can't do much about the weather, but how about earthquakes? Can we prevent them?

A few years ago a distinguished seismologist, Clarence Allen of the California Institute of Technology, came up with a startling idea himself when he told an earthquake conference that it might be possible to release energy from fault zones one limited piece at a time instead of just waiting for the big one.

Faults need water to move. So, Allen suggested drilling three holes into a fault. Pump water into the middle hole, but suck it out of the two outer holes, thus lubricating a short section of the fault. The dry zones would, in theory, stop the quake from propagating further along the fault.

A nifty idea, but like so many of these ideas, it will never come to pass because of liability. What if one of the dry holes isn't dry enough and the quake just keeps on rumbling down the fault, destroying everything in its path?

Allen quipped that perhaps the idea could be tested in a country without any lawyers. Like so many great ideas, he said, it makes sense, but it's crazy.