How Worried Should You Be About a Real Life ‘Geostorm?’

The new Gerard Butler movie turns geoengineering into a weapon that wreaks global havoc on the scale of 'The Day After Tomorrow.'

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Jul 7 2017, 8:56pm

Image: Geostorm/Warner Bros/YouTube

What if there was a network of satellites that could control the weather around the world? What if someone (or something?) took control of those satellites and started using them to wreak havoc, creating giant tornadoes and freezing airplanes out of the sky? That's the thrilling premise of Geostorm, a new Hollywood disaster flick from a guy who produced Independence Day, which stars Gerard Butler and comes out in the US on October 20, according to its new trailer.

As the trailer description reads, "the world's leaders came together to create an intricate network of satellites to control the global climate and keep everyone safe." Putting aside the conflation of weather and climate (two related but different things), the idea of humanity deliberately altering the climate to create more favorable conditions does have a basis in reality through a burgeoning science called geoengineering. Scientists have proposed a number of schemes to help slow the warming of the Earth, including spraying reflective particles into the atmosphere, brightening clouds with saltwater, and fertilizing carbon dioxide-consuming plankton.

There are some concerns that these ideas could backfire in horrible ways. But if geoengineering does move forward in real life, could something like a Geostorm really happen?

"Geostorm's relationship to the science and politics of geoengineering seems about as realistic as The Day after Tomorrow's relationship to the science and politics of climate change," David Keith, a professor holding dual appointments in applied physics and public policy at Harvard, told me in an email. "That is, there is almost no relationship."

Keith would know, as he is himself part of a group set to experiment with geoengineering by launching reflective aerosols later this year, which he added is an "inherently slow moving" process. "Nothing changes in less than a year and little changes in 10 years," Keith explained. "There's just no magic knob to adjust that could suddenly make a storm appear (or not appear) in a specific place."

"The multiple tornadoes and huge wall of water from the ocean are impossible, given my understanding of climate physics."

Alan Robock, a professor of environmental sciences at Rutgers, agrees that we don't have to worry too much about a real-life Geostorm anytime soon.

"The technology portrayed in the movie, as far as I can tell from the trailer, does not exist, and I know of no way to actually control the weather in the manner indicated," Robock told me in an email. "It is pure science fiction. The multiple tornadoes and huge wall of water from the ocean are impossible, given my understanding of climate physics, and clearly were invented to make the movie exciting."

However, Robock, who has recently helped run geoengineering computer simulations aimed at making the ocean more reflective by spraying foam into it, did caution that real geoengineering could be used for evil. "If the technology is ever developed, it could be used for nefarious purposes, and there is a long history of attempts to try to control weather and climate for military purposes," Robock wrote. "If this movie scares people about this topic, I do not think that would be a bad thing."

David Grinspoon, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, a nonproft group dedicated to promoting exploration of the solar system, shares this concern. But he says it would not go down like it does in the Geostorm trailer. "It would be hard to weaponize it because you wouldn't be able to confine the effects to a very specific location," Grinspoon told me in an email. "If a madman wanted to take it over and mess with it to destroy the whole world—yes that is more of a realistic worry."

All the experts Motherboard contacted maintained that humanity should exercise caution when pursuing any geoengineering schemes.

"If this film makes people think about such things then I suppose I give it a thumbs up," Grinspoon wrote. "Who knows, I might even go see it in a nice air-conditioned theater if it stays so bloody hot here in DC!"

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