Let There Be Lightning

Revolutionary laser technology brings humans closer than ever to the dream of controlling the weather.

In the basement of a lab at the University of Geneva, two scientists fire lasers into an array of mirrors the size of a pool table. As the red beam of energy bounces through the maze, it concentrates and turns blue, then shoots through a small opening in a glass tank filled with liquid. Plumes of mist appear and swirl into a small cloud. On a bigger scale this process can be used to modify weather, maybe even the climate.

Using lasers to change the weather may sound like a half-baked Dr. Evil plot. But the technology could revolutionize industries as disparate as aeronautics and agriculture. Jean-Pierre Wolf, a physicist and professor leading the Biophotonics Group lab at the University of Geneva, explained the process to me: Short laser pulses break apart air molecules and create a path through which a current can flow. The charge along the path is, in effect, man-made lightning. Lasers can also redistribute water molecules, prompting or preventing rain droplets.

For centuries people have tried to control the weather, from Native American rain dances to winemakers in southern France firing cannonballs into the sky in hopes of reducing the threat of hail. Governments too have tried to harness weather by “seeding” clouds with chemicals using planes and rockets. A decade ago the Beijing Weather Modification Office reportedly employed some 37,000 people and took credit for clearing the skies before the 2008 Olympics.

Measurable and replicable weather control has remained elusive. But Wolf ’s lab experiments proved weather modification was at least possible: In 2008, he and a team of scientists took their laser station to New Mexico and were able to successfully foster artificial lightning within a cloud high in the sky. In January Wolf and his team launched their Laser Lightning Rod (LLR) initiative, which is set on producing a high-powered portable laser that can, among other things, divert lightning strikes away from airports, power stations, and even flying planes. It is expected to be test-ready in two years.

Airbus is an LLR partner. The aeronautics industry loses billions of dollars a year to lightning strikes that result in required maintenance, inspections, and flight delays. But the agriculture sector stands to benefit most: Lasers could produce precipitation in arid regions and dissipate rainy conditions in wet areas.

Issues will no doubt arise as neighboring countries dispute meteorological strategies. “It means that politically you have to have agreements,” Wolf posits. Those may not be such easy accords to reach these days, amid the resurgence of nationalism.

Wolf isn’t too worried about the possibility that the technology might have disastrous ramifications. He says lasers don’t add anything unnatural to the atmosphere; they just change its composition. Laser technology can only enhance existing weather conditions—temperature, humidity, wind. It can’t create new weather recipes.

Still, there are dangers. James Fleming, a science professor at Colby College and author of Fixing the Sky, says tinkering with clouds and storms has led to undesirable effects such as widespread flooding. What’s more, he says, U.S. Department of Defense sponsors “may want to weaponize this technology and send a billion volts of electricity crashing down on their adversaries.” Now that’s a Dr. Evil plot.