If you’ve taken a drive westbound on Interstate 90 coming into Missoula recently, you may have been intrigued by a billboard boasting a big plane against a sky filled with contrails. On the billboard read the words: “STOP TOXIC CLIMATE ENGINEERING.”

Anything with “TOXIC” written boldly along a highway that sees an average of 320,000 cars every day is sure to capture the attention of drivers and passengers of all ages. With the White House releasing a report at the end of June suggesting openness toward studying such a thing, you might be wondering, what is this “climate engineering” the sign is referring to? And could it finally be studied?

What is solar radiation management?

Solar radiation management (SRM) is the term used to discuss the act of blocking sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface with tiny particles of chemicals. It is sometimes called “geoengineering," but as the idea is becoming more common in both scientific and mainstream conversation, new verbiage is arising.

The point of solar radiation management, if it were being practiced, would be to help counteract the effects of a warming climate due to CO2 emissions. One proposed way to practice SRM would be to use airplanes to distribute the light-blocking particles.

In the words of Joe Trevelline, a former jet mechanic and volunteer who helped get the billboard on I-90 installed,

“Geoengineering is just playing God with the weather.”

Some people fear this is being done by the U.S. government already without honestly telling citizens of the act.

The conspiracy started from true events

The fear comes from somewhere. The U.S. government actually used techniques of SRM during World War II. Airplanes flew over Vietnam, dropping silver iodide over rice fields. This act is called “cloud seeding.” When silver iodide enters the atmosphere, water droplets form together in the clouds and heavy rains can occur.

As a result of the downpour, the rice Vietnamese citizens relied on for food was destroyed. On top of that, the intense mud made it hard for troops to make moves. This tactic carried out in WWII is called Operation Popeye.

Since the horrendous act of war in the 70s, some people aren’t convinced that was the only time the government used the practice. With Operation Popeye, the chemtrails conspiracy was born.

Is our climate being geoengineered?

While conspiracy theorists may say the government is controlling the climate without transparency, University of Montana professor and co-author of an essay on the ethics of geoengineering Christopher J. Preston said,

“None of that is happening anywhere in the world right now, at least not intentionally.”

In smaller efforts, though, some cloud seeding has happened in recent years. Not to control the world’s climate, but to create helpful, temporary weather conditions.

Geoengineering used today

For the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China claims to have shot shells of silver iodide into the clouds to make the rain season come early.

Just this year, Mexico banned solar geoengineering methods after an unauthorized balloon full of sulfur dioxide was released into the skies.

The Rockies have seen cloud seeding methods used in recent years as the Colorado River experienced extreme drought.

Even the Missoula airport right in our backyards has a method to disperse fog that could be considered geoengineering. With about 70% effectiveness, the airport staff can clear away fog by spraying liquid carbon dioxide so planes can land, according to a report with director Cris Jensen in an interview with NW News.

A geoengineered future?

On a large scale, it would be very difficult to test geoengineering methods such as SRM. For any of these methods to be able to help mitigate the effects of climate change, the practices would need to span across the globe, not just hover above the United States.

Before any grand geoengineering gestures can be made, they must be researched, which requires funding.

Even though the government has acknowledged a plan to begin studying geoengineering, we can’t expect the sun to be blocked by particles any time soon.

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