A Brief History of Geoengineering

Geoengineering may have only recently begun to gain traction in the debate over how best to confront global climate change, but the concept is not a new one. James Pollard Espy, the first meteorologist employed by the U.S. government, advocated controlled forest burning in the 1830s in order to stimulate rain.[1] Although scientifically dubious, the theories of the "Storm King," as Espy was derisively nicknamed, were an important precursor to the more serious climate modification proposals that followed.

Questions regarding the practical application of geoengineering took on greater significance during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union pursued weather control for its military applications. The U.S. actually conducted weather warfare with some success during the Vietnam War. During both the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the military seeded clouds with silver iodide flares along parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to induce greater rainfall, thus limiting enemy movement. Under the codename "Operation Popeye," some 2,600 cloud seeding sorties were flown over the course of five years.[2]

Geoengineering was specifically mentioned as an option to mitigate the effects of climate change in a report by the Presidential Science Advisory Committee to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. In "Restoring the Quality of Our Environment," often cited as the first high-level government document pointing to carbon dioxide as the driving force behind global climate change, the authors wrote that the "possibilities of deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes...need to be thoroughly explored."[3] The idea was also entering the political discourse on global warming in the Soviet Union, where climatologist Mikhail Budyko was bringing attention to the process of decreasing global temperatures by shooting sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere in the 1970s.[4]

A real world experiment played out in 1991 with the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Pinatubo covered the earth with a layer of sulfuric acid that reflected enough sunlight back into space to decrease average global temperature by 0.5°C for roughly two years following the eruption.[5] The measurable effects of this natural occurrence lent credence to the concept of solar radiation management, and vigorous discussion of multiple geoengineering options has continued to intensify in recent years. Top scientific academies in both the U.S. and the U.K. have undertaken research projects on the topic. The U.S. Congress has begun to hold hearings on geoengineering. President Obama's top science advisor, John Holdren, has personally come out in support of research into geoengineering options.[6] These signs may indicate that discussion of geoengineering R&D could play an even greater role in the climate change policy portfolio moving forward.


  1. The Royal Society (2009). "Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty." RS Policy Document 10/09.
  2. Fleming, J.R. (2007). "The Climate Engineers." The Wilson Quarterly 31(2): 46-60.
  3. Keith, D.W. (2009). "Engineering the Planet" in Climate Change Science and Policy, S.H. Schneider, A. Rosencranz, M.D. Mastrandrea, and K. Kuntz-Duriseti (eds). Washington, DC: Island Press.
  4. Kerr, R.A. (2006). "Pollute the Planet for Climate's Sake?" Science 314: 401-403.
  5. Ibid, Fleming.
  6. Revkin, A.C. (2009). "Science Advisor Lays Out Climate and Energy Plans." New York Times – Dot Earth. Accessible at: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/09/science-adviser-lists-goals-on-climate-energy.