Cloud Machine

The Cloud Machine is a personal device for the modification of the atmosphere. It consists of cloud-making gear sent up in a weather-balloon payload. As it reaches specific altitudes it disperses Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN) and water vapor to create small, temporary clouds. This method is inspired by a geo-engineering technique proposed to create brighter, more reflective clouds which shield earth from sun’s radiation, and thus partly counteract the climate change.


Click through the images for the explanation of the process:

Clouds play an important role in the energy budget of the Earth, cooling it or trapping its heat. So scientists are considering manipulating them as a way to balance that energy budget – and counteract global warming. Clouds reflect Sun’s radiation (shortwave radiation which contains high amounts of energy and we know it as visible light) and trap the radiation emitted by the Earth (longwave radiation). One of the proposals for intentionally intervening in the climate to counteract global warming (a field known as climate engineering) calls for creating brighter, more reflective clouds that will reflect more of Sun’s radiation back to space and cool the planet.

This technique, called Cloud Brightening, was inspired by ship tracks — trails of clouds left behind by the ships traveling across oceans and sending salt water vapor up into the atmosphere. The salt in the ocean water acts as a Cloud Condensation Nuceli and helps to make the clouds brighter – more droplets per cloud mean more surface area and more light scattering.

ship tracks

Here’s Episode 01 of the Cloud Machine project, Introduction:

Episode 02, Cloud of Unknowing, explores the ideas of fundamental unpredictability of systems – both physical and social, and possibility of unknowing.

One of my Machines got away without carrying the GPS trackers when a tether line broke. This is a story of that launch, of my attempt to track and recover the machine, and of what happened next. It is about accidents, limits of knowledge, prediction and control, islands, flows, messages in bottles, and more.

A rough prediction of the trajectory of the balloon can be calculated through a University of Wyoming online application. The general direction of the flight and the site of the impact are predicted based on the conditions aloft. But based on this prediction alone, finding the payload is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Unpredictability is part and parcel of other parts of the process as well: whether the cloud actually forms or not depends on the atmospheric conditions in the exact location it is made. The air around it must be humid enough to be saturated with the addition of the water from the Machine.

Accounting for one aspect of this unpredictability is the FAA regulation for the proper signage on the payload. Over 1400 meteorological balloon are launched everyday and a share of the payloads descend on properties of unsuspecting citizens. Identifying the package as harmless and a scientific instrument is key information to get across to someone who finds it.

Episode 03, Notice of intention
This is a story of the launch we did in California, one of the western states that does extensive cloud seeding to increase precipitation. Conceiving of the atmosphere as a reservoir of water, and of cloud seeding as access to it gets us to explore the territory of property rights (of landowners to rain from clouds either over their property or upwind from it), negligent cloud seeding, and the history of weather modification and its regulation.

This launch is also useful to point out the difference between weather and climate modification – particularly in scope, one being local and fairly easily regulated, the other global, and to discuss the power that control over weather and climate promises, as well as of course regulation of speculative entities and uncontrollable phenomea – hence focus on the notice of ‘intention’.

Here’s a quote from a judicial opinion from a weather modification case in Texas:
“The landowner is entitled to such precipitation as Nature deigns to bestow. We believe that the landowner is entitled, therefore and thereby, to such rainfall as may come from clouds over his own property that Nature, in her caprice, may provide.”

In the first weather modification court case, in 1950, New York City was conducting “experiments to induce rain artificially” to alleviate drought in the city. An owner of a country club and resort north of NYC sued the City claiming the rain would interfere with his business. The court ruled against him portraying his claims as ‘speculative’ while the cloud-seeders were ‘reasonable’. “[…]Contrasted with plaintiff’s unfounded speculations as to possible damage, the affidavits of the experts for the City show that the experiments have reached a stage where it might reasonably be expected that rainfall may be both induced and controlled.”

Anyone wishing to do weather modification must follow regulations including community engagement, that includes publishing a notice of intention “in a newspaper that has general circulation within the county in which the operation is to be conducted or affected” and holding public hearings open “for all persons who reside or own property within the boundaries of the weather modification operational area”.

Around the time of my first experiments with the Machine, a first geoengineering field test was to take place in the UK. It was named SPICE: Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering. It was similar to my experiment: spraying a small amount of water into the atmosphere from a balloon payload. It was environmentally benign, but rather constituted a social experiment, underscoring the fact that technology innovation is often the simpler piece of the socio-technological system puzzle, the social innovation and transformation that needs to take place is more difficult to define and usher in. The SPICE experiment never got off the ground, prevented from going forward by a stage gate panel, citing, among other concerns, lack of an international governance framework for geoengineering research, and intellectual property concerns (as the leading engineers applied for patents on the technology.) Complexity of both of these issues is well demonstrated in this experiment. Here are some key points.

While it is normal for engineering projects to be protected by IP, geo-engineering technology should be “regulated as a public good” according to Oxford Principles. Many others also argue for legal restrictions on IP on geoengineering technology. Patents could give companies a vested interest in the continuation of climate change, argues Holly Buck. “It seems conceptually wrong to create conditions for an enterprise that would institutionally benefit from a stressed climate.”

The emergence of geoengineering as a research agenda and a ‘matter of concern’ has coincided with growing US and European interest in ‘responsible research and innovation,’ writes Jack Stilgoe. The aim being ‘opening up’ the public participation in technology assessment reinvigorating the politics of technology and aligning science and innovation with social needs. But governing innovation in technology is a catch 22, when it small scale there’s not enough known about its (potentially harmful social) consequences to warrant control, but when it’s big scale, it’s already escaped a strata of influence that the current mechanics of counterbalance of power act in. Attempts to shape the technology, and govern it despite the impossibility of prediction have acquired the term ‘anticipatory governance.’ This anticipatory stance, and what has been termed ‘speculative ethics,’ are supposed to make techno-scientific promises of innovation more explicitly ‘responsible’, but they risk closing down decision making rather than opening it up to new possibilities.

SPICE balloon setup:

The projects are shown in installations that contain documentation of research and deployments and the situations that unfolded as artifacts, documents, videos, design and sculptural objects and other formats.