On March 1, a snowstorm plowed through the Southeast and Atlantic coast and buried The Weather Channel in viewers. Thirty-four million people watched TWC's coverage, according to Nielsen research, topping all cable news networks for that day.
Weather on the 1s, weather on the 8s, weather on our mobile phones: Since we can arrange for TWC to call us in case of severe weather, we now may be awakened in the night by a ringtone instead of thunder.
Our weather obsession has moved beyond a fascination with natural phenomenon to a relentless desire to unnaturally bring climate to heel. Through weather modification, as it's benignly known, some scientists, farmers and policymakers want to steer hurricanes, atomize hailstones, sow rain clouds—even blot out a part of the sun—to adjust our outdoor surroundings as if we're nudging the thermostat in our homes.
Owning the Weather, the first feature-length documentary by director and N.C. State University alum Robert Greene, examines the motivations of the weather modifiers—from cloud-seeders flying in single-engine planes to geo-engineers transfixed by their computer modeling. Balanced with criticism from some scientists, environmentalists and ethicists, the film explores the global, and possibly irreversible, implications of such projects.
"I wanted to try to take some of the ideas to the nth degree," said Greene, whose inspiration for the film was a 2005 Harper's article, "Owning the Weather," by Ando Arike. "No one would ever say they want to own a cloud to own the weather. But we've sold the electromagnetic spectrum; we've sold water. If you take things to their absurd end point you can see more clearly what's on the table."
While scientists and the military have been tinkering with the weather since the mid-20th century, after the alarm sounded over global warming, the number of weather modification programs has increased to more than 50 operating in the U.S.
As Greene traveled throughout the U.S., he filmed not only scientists and policymakers but also those for whom the weather affects their livelihood, including fisherman on the Maine coast, ski resort proprietors in Colorado, farmers in Texas and an air-conditioning repairman in North Carolina.
Some weather modifiers' motivations are noble, even if their methods are unproven: Cloud-seeders in drought-stricken south Texas want to keep crops from roasting in the fields; farmers buy $50,000 "hail cannons," dubious contraptions that allegedly send supersonic shockwaves into the sky to break up hailstones that would ruin their crops.
"Their basic idea—should we do something or nothing, and let this happen to us—is an absolute human response to any problem," said Greene. "But that's the problem. We can't get beyond the reasonable human response to things."
We are the reason we're in this climate mess. We've moved to areas of the country—the desert west and hurricane-prone coastal communities—that are inhospitable, and without intervention unsustainable to human life. Our solution is not to live elsewhere, but to manufacture artificial trees.
Our artificial environment, climate-controlled homes, cars and even storage units have further distanced us from nature. (Even meteorologists are sheltered; a weatherman remarks in the film that his office doesn't have a window.) Instead of embracing and coexisting with weather's uncertainty, we seek to subdue it.
Ironically, the weather's unpredictability affected how Greene shot the film. In parched Pleasanton, Texas, south of San Antonio, Greene interviewed a cloud seeder. "Our hope was to go there when it wasn't raining and film them attempting to make it rain," Greene recalled. "And they had one of their biggest floods. Part of the point is you can't control everything. That's life."
In seeking a manmade antidote to the manmade causes of global warming, we may actually exacerbate the delicate climate situation. What should our response be to the profligate burning of fossil fuels and our insatiable appetite for gas-guzzling cars? For some scientists, the answer is to launch 16 trillion flying discs affixed to the magnetic field between the moon and the earth in order to blot out 2 percent of the sun, reducing the light and heat that reaches us. Or to build a volcano that would spray sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to create favorable conditions for rain; that cure has since been found to be worse than the disease: It depletes the ozone layer and encourages drought.
Beyond the environmental impacts of weather modification, the film raises ethical questions as well. Who will profit? Who will pay? Who will monitor and oversee the programs? "That's why we made the movie now," Greene said. "The hope is we would be vigilant about these things and that people would demand transparency. The hope is that the debate happens now."
Owning the Weather screens Friday, April 3, at 10:15 a.m. in Cinema 3.