For a movie about a global weather apocalypse, Geostorm is disastrously boring, but its weather control technology deserves your brief attention. It is uniquely ridiculous!
Image source: Warner Bros. Pictures
Sadly, the premise is more relevant than ever. In Geostorm, humanity never got its shit together to address global warming, but thankfully, scientists figured out how to build a network of satellites that can zap extreme weather events out of existence before they do any harm. This arrangement works out fine until something (or someone?!!) causes the satellite network to malfunction. Eventually, all hell breaks loose. The mother of all extreme weather events — a geostorm! — starts laying waste to cities around the world with tornadoes, tsunamis, killer cold spells and scorching fires. Yet, for most of the film, scientists stare at computer screens.
Still, there is a nugget of interesting science at the heart of this ill-conceived movie. While Geostorm's weather control tech is very bogus (more on that in a sec), the idea of a large-scale, technological intervention to chill out Earth's climate is not. This concept, called geoengineering, has been around for a few decades, but until recently it was confined to the scientific fringes. As the mere existence of a film like Geostorm demonstrates, geoengineering has started to go mainstream.
"I think up until recently, geoengineering was considered a fringe topic, [something] people on the edges of mainstream science talked about," Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institute for Science who has been involved with geoengineering conversations since the early 2000s, told Gizmodo. "Now in terms of science, it's been normalized."
A variety of geoengineering concepts have been proposed. They run the gamut from low tech and immediately doable schemes, like dumping a bunch of iron in the ocean to stimulate the growth of carbon-sucking phytoplankton, to more advanced, science fictional ideas, like space-based solar reflectors. Perhaps the most popular idea right now is solar engineering, or injecting a bunch of tiny particles into Earth's stratosphere to reflect incoming sunlight, just like volcanic eruptions do. A group of scientists at Harvard University are even planning to field test this idea in a (very small, very harmless) experiment sometime next year.
The problem with any and all geoengineering concepts is that conducting a global experiment on Earth's climate system could have unintended consequences, and we've only got one shot to get it right. Stimulating the growth of phytoplankton may throw the marine food web out of whack; filling the stratosphere with solar-reflective sulfate particles could mess with Earth's fragile ozone layer.
The other, more fundamental issue, is that geoengineering is like putting a bandaid on a wound, while doing nothing to treat the underlying cause of illness — in this case, the ten billion tons of fossil carbon we spew into the air every year. Some social scientists fear that the mere act of studying geoengineering will cause politicians to become even more complacent than they already are about addressing climate change.
With all of this in mind, a movie about the dangers of technological climate interventions could in theory serve a valuable role, edifying the public on a nuanced scientific topic. Geostorm doesn't seem to be that movie.
"One could argue that having complete nonsense [like Geostorm] is useful because it at least creates a discussion about these issues," Caldeira said. "But that good aspect is probably outweighed by the misinformation."
By misinformation, Caldeira means the technology at the heart of Geostorm, a network of satellites that can disrupt localised extreme weather events from space. This is laughably implausible.
"This idea that you can do something in one place and most of the effects can stay localised to that place is a misunderstanding of how the climate system works," Caldeira said, noting that Earth's atmosphere causes everything to mix. The energies involved with disrupting extreme weather events would also be mind-boggling. "It's much more plausible that you would just get fried by an orbiting laser weapon," Caldeira noted.
Even localised control of regular weather, through schemes like cloud seeding, has only seen limited success despite decades of research. As Chris, an air quality meteorologist who preferred to be identified on a first name only basis, told Gizmodo, "We just have recently gotten much better at forecasting the weather, never mind controlling it."
You might (very rightly) argue that nobody's going to a B-list disaster movie for rigorous science. But surely there isn't any harm in suggesting the government is capable of a massive weather control project?
Meteorologists might disagree with you on that.
"When I tell strangers my occupation, about 1 in 7 ask me if the government can control the weather," Thomas Jenkins, a meteorologist for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Smoke Management Program, told Gizmodo. Based on responses I received from about a dozen meteorologists yesterday, Jenkins' experience is very much the norm.
"I've fielded everything from inquiries and complaints about 'chemtrails' to requests for rain over a certain plot of farm land," Chris said, adding that he thinks there's "an innate fear in some of what the government is doing."
Aaron Perry, a meteorologist with NBC Boston, told Gizmodo he "definitely" thinks public fears over weather control and geoengineering have grown in recent years. "Mainstream news has been reporting on current hot-button topics like fracking and cloud-seeding for the last 10+ years. There's an implied assumption...that goes something like, 'if they are currently doing this, they MUST be able to do this [more complex technological feat.]"
"There is fear that [this movie] will make the already large numbers of conspiracy believers even larger," TV meteorologist Dan Satterfield told Gizmodo. Indeed, the National Weather Service was bracing for an influx of queries about weather control when Geostorm launched last week, even sending out an email reminding meteorologists how best to respond.
This has been a public service announcement from your National Weather Service. :) pic.twitter.com/abmCCxyWzb
— David Roth (@DRmetwatch) October 21, 2017
So far, however, those fears appear unfounded. An NWS spokesperson told Motherboard that as of Saturday, the agency has received zero queries about weather modification that referenced Geostorm. Gizmodo can confirm that as of today, that number is still zero.
Perhaps Geostorm's 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is keeping even the conspiracy theorists at bay.