In this project, three clouds that changed the world are re-assembled. The material composition of the original clouds is reconstituted and conditions necessary for the cloud formation are applied.
Clouds created for this project are models of: a cloud that formed in the past (a memory), a cloud that formed in a lab (an ideal), and a cloud that is proposed to be created (a proposition.) These particular clouds transformed how we think about climate, technology and human command of nature. By examining their material composition and the conditions in which they formed, the project aims to rethink the reality of geological and social transformations they paved a way for.
Clouds acquire characteristics of the ground below them. Particles at the center of cloud droplets are traces of natural and human activity. Every cloud thus is a material memory of one unique assembly of what David Gissen calls “socio-nature”. To paraphrase Gissen, each cloud is more than a sum of gasses, matter and forces: it “contains within it the tragedies and successes of the social transformation of nature that exist wherever human experience appears.”
Date: April 5, 1815
Location: A volcano known as Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, producing a cloud that formed initially over all of Indonesia, then spread along the equator and later to the North and South poles, covering the globe with a single coherent veil suspended in the stratosphere for months.
Chemical composition: The Cloud Condensation Nuclei in Cloud A is pulverized rock emitted from Mount Tambora during the volcano’s eruption. They are black, glassy, biotite-bearing ne-trachyandesites, a highly unusual rock type. 42 cubic miles of this rock was emitted into the atmosphere, along with 55 million tons of sulfur-dioxide gas which combined with hydroxide gas in the stratosphere to form sulfuric acid that condensed into tiny droplets.
Conditions: The concentration of atmospheric CO2 was approximately 280 parts per million (ppm), what is today considered a pre-industrial level. It was also in 1815, at the brink of Industrial Revolution, that coal output soared: Britain alone produced 23 million tons.
Effects: The immediate effects of the cloud were widespread and lasted several years. It created an agricultural disaster, with food riots and epidemics breaking out throughout Europe. Red and brown snow fell throughout the year in Europe and Asia. The weather presented ‘the appearance of vast & dreadful desolation,’ (as Mary Shelley notes in her journal) and inspired many expressions of anxiety and dread, including the literary creations of Frankenstein and Dracula. Use of carmine by artists increased, a reflection of scarlet sunsets. A century and a half later scientists discovered that Cloud A caused a climate anomaly, reflecting sunlight and cooling the globe by 0.7–1.3 °F.
Cloud B (an ideal)
Location: The cloud formed in a ‘cold box’ at the General Electric Research lab in Schenectady, New York. The GE cold box soon became a cornerstone of cloud research, which eventually turned into “Project Cirrus,” a weather modification program, conducted in collaboration with the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force.
Chemical composition: 100 grams of dry ice seeded the first cloud created in the GE lab. ‘Ice-nucleating’ particles, such as dry ice, induce water to condense into cloud droplets, and to freeze at higher than normal temperatures, producing precipitation. On November 13, Dr. Vincent Schaefer and Dr. Bernard Vonnegut (the brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut) successfully induced rain in a cloud —“an unsuspecting cloud over the Adirondacks” [REFERENCE]—and the results were dramatic enough to warrant creation of a program for modifying the weather. Cloud B model uses bacteria Pseudomonas syringae, biological ice nucleation particles whose role in cloud formation has only recently been discovered.
Conditions: In 1946, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was approximately 309 ppm. In the post-war atmosphere of techno-optimism, the US was entering a period marked by unprecedented economic growth and new human capability to wield atomic energy, technology powerful enough to have an impact on the entire planet.
Effects: Cloud B captured the excitement of the moment, promising to control the weather— and to fulfill the dream of meteorological researchers and military leaders alike. The full command of natural resources through technological means seemed to be just around the corner. But the clouds outside of the cold box proved impossible to master. Within a few years the discovery of chaos theory described a fundamental limit of prediction and control of natural systems.
Cloud C (a proposition)
Location: 8 miles above the ground, Tucson, Arizona
Chemical composition: 100 grams of calcium carbonate is proposed to be sprayed into the stratosphere as part of the first field test in Solar Radiation Management research. SRM proposals aim to counteract global warming by shielding Earth from the sun by creating aerosol clouds in the stratosphere. The project was green-lighted in November 2016, and will be conducted in the next 18 months, after years of controversy over the proposal. Different particles will be tested during the research, including diamond dust and sulfates, which mimic material emitted during volcanic eruption.
Conditions: By 2018, atmospheric concentration of CO2 will be approximately 410 ppm, a dramatic increase from pre-industrial levels, and evidence of human disruption of the climate system. The climate crisis, and the failure to address it over the preceding decades, has triggered the turn to emergency measures exemplified by this geo-engineering test. The position of scientific community and political leadership has slowly shifted to giving serious consideration to climate engineering proposals, despite the enormous controversy around them.
Effects: The effects of geo-engineering research are difficult to predict. The physical impact on the atmosphere is expected to be entirely benign. But it is the social impacts of going down the geo-engineering path that are a cause of concern and debate.