Reel Science

The Wildest Gerard Butler Sci-Fi Movie on HBO Max Barely Understands Its Own Science

Geostorm has a ludicrous premise — and even more ludicrous technology.

Originally Published: 
Inverse, Warner Bros.
The Future of Earth

Let’s time travel back to the year 2019 — but imagine we’re living in an alternate universe where climate change has rapidly intensified in a very short period of time. A single heat wave kills 2 million people in Madrid. Floods have engulfed all of lower Manhattan and other parts of the world, sweeping away not just neighborhoods but entire towns and cities.

This frightening climate apocalypse forms the backbone for the outlandish sci-fi hijinks in Geostorm. The climate disaster movie stars Gerard Butler as Jake Lawson, a scientist with the International Space Station who designs “Dutch Boy” — a global network of satellites intended to modify weather patterns by disrupting extreme storms around the world.

“Scientists from 17 countries — led by the US and China — worked tirelessly. Not as representatives of their nations, but of humanity. They found a way to neutralize the storms with a net of thousands of satellites, each deploying countermeasures designed to impact the basic elements of weather: heat, pressure, weather and water,” Jake’s daughter, Hannah, tells viewers in the movie’s opening moments.

There’s just one problem with Geostorm’s premise: it’s ridiculously absurd and in no way plausible.

“The particular idea they have — and you can quote me on this — is garbage,” Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell tells Inverse.

Yet, the movie is still worth examining for a few reasons, namely the fact that it raises compelling questions about the dangerous, unintended consequences of real-life attempts to manipulate weather phenomena — also known as space or climate geoengineering.

Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.

Why is Geostorm Not Realistic?

Before we can get into the dangers of real-life geoengineering, we need to explain the bogus “science” behind Geostorm won’t actually succeed in helping us stop climate change.

Geostorm is light on the details of how its sci-fi satellite network functions, but it seems like they use high-tech thrusters to dispense some kind of energy down to Earth to modify the weather locally around the world.

“There were a series of storms building in Southeast Asia and the North Atlantic that would have killed tens of thousands of people. Dutch Boy was ready. We went green. It works. You’re welcome,” a defiant Jake Lawson tells a Senate Committee questioning his handling of Dutch Boy.

It’s effectively a souped-up, space-y version of the controversial real-life technique of cloud seeding, which sends airplanes into clouds to dispense materials like silver iodide with the goal of increasing rainfall or snow.

“The advantage of a satellite is you’re way up high so you can see a lot of the Earth at once,” McDowell says, adding “the only thing you can imagine covering a large area would be electromagnetic waves or something like that.”

But experts say it doesn’t make sense — nor is it actually plausible — to use satellites to modify the weather the way Geostorm proposes.

A still from Geostorm.

Warner Brothers

“I don't know any applications of weather satellites that would be used to modify the weather,” Jonathan Winter, an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Dartmouth College who studies climate prediction and variability, tells Inverse.

Winter adds, “I don't see a way in which a satellite could hold the energy or be a tool that could create that much heat or that much cooling.”

Basically, the problem with Geostorm is one of scale. The atmosphere moves around massive amounts of energy in storms on a daily basis, and it would take technology far beyond our current limitations to be able to disrupt that energy using beams sent via satellites. McDowell says our current energy deployment capacity would still be “trillions of times too small” to affect weather on such a scale. Winter says we’d be better off sticking with existing localized cloud seeding methods to attempt to alter storms rather than messing with satellites.

“I would say that the energies involved in trying to do what they're describing are well beyond the sort of energies that humans can manipulate in the foreseeable future,” McDowell says.

What is Geoengineering?

But if you can overlook the absurd specifics of Geostorm, the movie’s overarching premise teases the unintended consequences of real-life solar geoengineering. In effect: it works by maximizing surface albedo — the amount of sunlight reflected by Earth’s surface. As it turns out, the U.S. government first sponsored a geoengineering research program in 2017 — the same year Geostorm came out.

Alternatively known as climate engineering or solar radiation modification, geoengineering deploys controversial scientific methods to modify weather conditions in response to climate change, which makes extreme weather events like heat waves more likely.

There are actually geoengineering proposals that deploy satellites as “space mirrors” to reflect sunlight away from the Earth and keep it cool. Ed Mitchard, Professor at the University of Edinburgh and CEO and Co-Founder of satellite data analytics company Space Intelligence, tells Inverse that this kind of geoengineering would work by launching small satellites that unfold bigger structures to reflect away solar radiation.

“So effectively, you can have mirrors orbiting the Earth,” Mitchard says.

Winter says that such “space mirror” technology would be quite expensive, and, accordingly, geoengineering advocates have shifted towards a cheaper method of using sulfate aerosols, also known as stratospheric aerosol intervention (SAI).

These sulfur-laden particles are naturally emitted during volcanic eruptions, leading to a temporary cooling of Earth’s surface. Famously, Mount Pinatubo’s 2001 eruption in the Philippines led to a “measurable cooling of the Earth’s surface for a period of almost two years” according to NASA.

Geoengineering proposes sending these highly-reflective particles up into Earth’s atmosphere to bounce sunlight away from Earth and help offset global warming produced by fossil fuel emissions.

Climate change may make weather more extreme — but we can’t geoengineer our way out of it.

chiro ong / 500px/500px/Getty Images

Why is Geoengineering Dangerous?

But Winter says there are three problems with geoengineering proposals.

First: there’s no way to determine who controls the thermostat, effectively. Unlike in Geostorm, there is currently no coordinated international body that regulates geoengineering, allowing individuals or private companies to go rogue and conduct unsanctioned stratospheric aerosol intervention experiments.

Second: geoengineering basically sidesteps the obvious but harder solution to climate change — working to reduce fossil fuel emissions and shifting to renewable energy — in favor of an easier technological fix.

“There's this problem of ‘we get to have our cake and eat it too.’ But we haven't solved the problem, right?” Winter says. He explains that soon as humans stop putting sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere, the Earth will warm back up again — trapping us in a never-ending geoengineering nightmare.

Finally: geoengineering will have unintended — and sometimes unpredictable consequences — both in Hollywood and in real life. The dangerous consequences of geoengineering are made perfectly clear in the movie when rogue actors weaponize the Dutch Boy and setting off a major “geostorm” like the world has never seen before.

In real life, Winter explains that sulfate aerosols cause pollution — think of the thick smog permeating Los Angeles — that will likely kill vulnerable individuals with lung disease. Other recent research suggests geoengineering could have “devastating consequences” for India’s monsoon season — highly problematic considering India will soon become the world’s most populous country.

Geostorm’s general plot might be wildly unrealistic, but it’s right on the money when it comes to highlighting the dangers of techno-optimism in solving climate change.

“In science, right, when you're prototyping something, you do experiments, and maybe the first one doesn't work and you iterate and improve it,” McDowell says.

But there are no do-overs when it comes to geoengineering. If you throw stuff into the atmosphere even once, you’ll have to reap the consequences — whatever they may be.

“Maybe don't experiment on the one Earth that we have,” McDowell concludes.

Geostorm is streaming now on HBO Max.

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