Cloud Machine

October 15, 2012

The Cloud Machine is a personal device for weather modification. It consists of cloud-making gear sent up into the atmosphere in a weather-balloon payload. As it reaches specific altitudes it disperses Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN) and water vapor. Moisture in the air condenses into cloud droplets around the CCN, forming into small 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.

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Cloud Machine was commissioned for a Blowup event by V2_ Institute for Unstable Media, and is part of series Nephologies which consists of experiments and instruments to acquire knowledge of clouds and the systems they manifest. It combines scientific information with more whimsical and experiential approaches.

I once read a quote by Rene Decartes. If I can explain clouds, he said, I can explain everything. With that in mind, I decided to take up clouds as the object of an investigation, which would presumably lead to my understanding of everything. I decided to start my investigation by making a cloud.

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Remoteness is an essential aspect of a cloud, so my cloud too had to be made at a distance.

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Turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking about making clouds. 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 (known as climate engineering) calls for creating brighter, more reflective clouds that will shield Earth from the Sun’s radiation.

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This technique, called Cloud Brightening, was inspired by the ship trails — trails of clouds left behind by the ships traveling across oceans and sending salt water vapor up into the atmosphere.

image from NASA showing ship tracks

The salt in the ocean water acts as a Cloud Condensation Nuceli and helps to make the clouds brighter.

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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. That’s not the only unpredictable factor. Whether the cloud actually forms or not depends on the local conditions in the location it is made: the air around the Cloud Machine must be humid enough to be saturated with the addition of the little more water from the Machine.

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FAA requires 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.

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