The Murky View of Cloud Brightening

Ocean ships create cloud trails, stillshot from NASA video offered by

We are in a serious pickle. We can’t even agree whether we should test equipment to run experiments to make climate change better because … well… climate change affects everybody. We don’t know what we don’t know and can’t find out because we can’t even talk about it without surfacing hysteria. This is the conundrum I surmised last week, reading about a story on environmental research. The Alameda City Council, the decision-makers for a nearby local town, voted last Wednesday against allowing the continuation of an experiment to spray sea water into the ocean air to measure its effectiveness as a strategy that might lessen the effects of climate change. It made me curious.

Why was this experiment so “controversial,” as many of the headlines said? Why did Alameda “overrule its staff,” as the New York Times described it? I dug into the weeds a little and found that there’s a lot of weeds here. I did end up a bit more optimistic about the transparency of city governments, but more pessimistic about our ability to solve climate change. It’s a mess! And it’s going to get messier before it gets better, if this is any indication.

Do You Have a Permit?

The bare bones of what happened is as follows. Scientists from the University of Washington wanted to study the usefulness of a machine that would spray seawater into the air. The goal of the spraying would be to create an effect called Marine Cloud Brightening, which I’ll explain shortly. They had arranged to put their sprayer on to the deck of an old naval carrier, the U.S.S. Hornet, which is now docked and used as a tourist museum. It’s docked in Alameda, a peninsula connected to Oakland that sits in the San Francisco Bay. Alameda used to have a naval base, hence the Hornet, hence the docking facilities.

Someone needs to tell that the USS Hornet museum is not in San Francisco.

This location was chosen for a few reasons. It was near the ocean, had the right kind of climate, and was near several organizations which were partnering with Washington scientists. Super convenient for them! Also, the Hornet is part of the federal government, which is backing this research, so approvals were all good there. The one thing the scientists didn’t do is ask the city of Alameda before they started. Maybe that would have helped?

City officials heard about the activity, which began in April, and started asking about permits. Those were then obtained. Health and safety questions were asked–after all, they were spraying something into the air. A study was done, on a limited basis, which said that this spray, in this case, was salt water over the ocean, in small concentrations. Not a health risk.

What the team of scientists were doing, in this particular case, was trying to test the machine. The goal of the machine, ultimately, was to change the cloud patterns but this experiment here was to test the machine. Scientists had tested them up in their labs in Washington, but not out on the ocean. They wanted to see how the machines would work in the actual air air, not laboratory air.

From one of several New York Times articles on the technology and experiment.

The city council had a lengthy–maybe 90 minute–discussion about the topic, primarily listening to reports provided on the permissions, the mechanics of the sprayer, the toxicology report, and public commentary. Then, they voted no.

My initial reaction was that it seemed pretty short-sighted and provincial, a view which was partly enhanced by the headlines that described the vote. What’s so controversial about spraying sea water into the ocean? I was also bothered by the sound bite I heard on the local news, where the mayor said that the scientists had not been transparent enough. That just sounded like ruffled feathers–if only you had asked me first… I went into the rabbit hole to try to figure out what was really going on, and the answer is that it’s a lot more complicated. (And the mayor was right; they had not been transparent enough.)

Let’s dig into this Marine Cloud Brightening (MCB).

Making More Clouds

The goal of spraying sea water over the ocean is to thicken the clouds, to increase what’s called the albedo of clouds, the scienc-y word for how clouds absorb or reflect sunlight. It’s a pretty simple idea. We have global warming because too much sun, melting glaciers, wildfires, deserts etcetera etcetera etcetera. I’m assuming no one reading this is a climate change denier, so let’s take global warming for granted. The question is how to address it, and one way is to cool the earth by adding clouds which block some of that sunlight.

Graphic from analysis at

MCB is part several mitigation tactics termed geoengineering. Other tactics sound a lot scarier. For example, another proposal is to inject sulfur into the clouds to simulate volcanic eruptions because those would also create sun-blocking clouds. A team from Harvard, called SCoOex planned to launch weather balloons with calcium carbonate upward to create more clouds.

Geoengineering has scientific supporters but also big detractors, from environmental lobbying groups. Some of the scientists are well funded, but so are the environmentalists, apparently. Their arguments against geoengineering are a mixed bag. One of the big arguments from groups like the Center for Environmental Law (CEIL) and Friends of the Earth is that efforts to mitigate climate change effects still lets people burn the fossil fuels which cause global warming. They also argue against carbon taxes for the same reason, saying that having a carbon tax permits people to generate carbon. This implies that people will feel free to pollute if there’s a way to clean up pollution, which seems like a stupid argument.

They also immediately jump from experiment to implementation on a grand scale, arguing that if any of these tactics were done en masse, then there could be massive change, devastated rainforests, flooding etc. Further, they claim that individual country dictators might throw up this technology to make their own country’s weather look better but ruin other country’s weather. Again, somewhat hysterical argument. So what’s bothersome in looking at the “controversy” is that some of the reasoning seems like fear mongering before data has even been collected.

Yet there is a core problem with adding clouds that doesn’t require using scare tactics. If you change the clouds here, then you might indeed change the clouds there. Clouds don’t tend to stay put. They do like to wander. Weather, as we know, is somewhat unpredictable. Part of this issue with climate change is that melting seawater makes it hotter in some places and freezing in others: more extreme everywhere. Can we even fix that by changing it more clouds?

Transparency, Optimism, and Pessimism

Scientists have been trying to figure this out in a safe way since the 1990s, and they haven’t quite worked out all the bugs. And in testing or proposing ideas, they have poked several bears of public reaction, some quite reasonably. When Harvard tried to work with Sweden to launch their weather balloons, they got huge pushback from the Sami indigenous tribes. On the one hand, the tribes’ argument that we should learn to live with the existing weather seems not as helpful for the entire planet. But the tribes should have been engaged from the beginning since the weather would have been right over them.

(Which prompted me to ask — why is Harvard going to Sweden? Why is Washington coming to Alameda? Blah blah weather is better, but you’re testing the machine. Can’t you test the machine in Washington…?)

Down in Australia, they have actually implemented a form of MCB over the Great Barrier Reef. They did engage the indigenous tribes there, and so far there hasn’t been the hue and outcry that we’ve seen here. Which seems a little surprising because clouds changed in Australia could be just as likely to drift around and change weather elsewhere, wouldn’t they?

Meanwhile, what happened in Alameda was a lack of the scientists talking with everybody beforehand. They did, in fact, downplay the experiment a bit because, as they rather sheepishly admitted, they knew that it tends to get people stampeding and discussing volcanic eruptions and dictators wielding cloud seeding as weapons, when they thought they were just testing whether their pump sprayer worked.

It’s going to be a problem if anyone proposing a way to mitigate the massive effects of climate change can’t gather any data because oil companies still promote fossil fuels, which is essentially what some lobbyists were saying. “We have to stop using fossil fuels first before we do anything else.” Time’s a wastin’, folks. Why can’t we work on doing both? At least test the machines…

Here’s one little thing that gave me hope. I know for a long time it was hard to get information on what governments were doing. When I went in to find out what was discussed at the Alameda City Council meeting on June 5th, guess what I found? A video of the entire meeting. Publicly posted.

It demonstrated, for example, that the meeting did not go until 1 am, as one article implied, because they argued about this single issue for seven hours. The meeting was 6.5 hours long because they had thirty topics on the agenda–zoning permits, roof replacements, library signage. The MCB project discussion was item 7B. One woman joined the whole meeting on Zoom and was engaged, the whole time. The public commentary was reasoned, though a little intense at times. People provided documents and answered questions. Marilyn Ashcraft, the mayor, was the soul of patience. My idea of city government has been formed by watching too much television that focuses on corruption in New York, Chicago, and Alabama, I think. These guys worked really hard, and you can see it all!

I’m pretty pessimistic about what we’re going to about climate change, but I’m much more optimistic about the work being done by city council members to be helpful.

The Alameda City Council debating the MCB project, in full public view.

Good for Basketball

Steph Curry & Sabrina Ionescu competing in an NBA Competition. Photo from SportingNews.

The Battle of the Sexes is over. That is, we have reached the point where women and men might compete against each other and both be taken seriously. Where a woman might break a man’s record, a man might beat a woman only by the skin of his teeth, where everyone might watch the contest and come away thinking–that was fun! that was competitive! That was No Joke.

Steph Curry and Sabrina Ionescu went head to head in a 3 point basketball contest last night as part of the NBA All-Star weekend. Steph won. Steph “edged” Sabrina, as some headlines carefully point out. But NBA fans were “in awe” of both shooters, which is where this ought to be.

Sabrina imitated Steph after beating his record.

Who Are These People?

In case you don’t follow basketball, let me fill in a few of the blanks. Steph Curry is the greatest shooter in basketball history–at least according to Golden State Warriors announcers and fans like me. Steph already passed the NBA all-time 3-point leader (Ray Allen) years ago. He’s 25% ahead of that record. And he’s still playing.

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The End of History (as we know it) Part Two

They’re changing the history books! They’re restricting books in the libraries! Trying to control the narrative! Distorting the facts!

Same as it ever was.

Historians are up in arms over a wave of current attempts to change what is conveyed as history. But before we get carried away by panic, alarm, and exclamation points, we should revisit the “history” of attempts to quash history. This has happened a lot. It might even be categorized as a “neverending story.”

The New Wave of Old Censorship

At the American Historical Association conference that I attended last week, there were a number of sessions devoted to considerations the wave of recent efforts to restrict how history is taught and ban books. Flyers were left on the chairs urging support for the wording of a resolution to be adopted by the powers-that-be. I’m not quite an academic, but the one thing I’ve learned is that academics are great at sitting in meetings and adopting resolutions.

Continue reading “The End of History (as we know it) Part Two”