Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Hunting clouds in a volatile desert region

ETHICS / Is it okay to modify the atmosphere?

The story of clouds is a story of chaos and dust. So the question is, what would happen if you could control the clouds?

These words are the basic setup. Hannele Korhonen is a research professor at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. She is a true scientist. Without science, her life would be a void. Within her profession, she aims to help build a common good. As long as you do that, you are doing a valuable job.

Her quest is to understand the clouds. Finland, where clouds are plentiful, seems to be the perfect place to study them and learn to control the cloud systems for the benefit of humanity. About a billion people around the globe live with water scarcity, and with climate change, this problem is only getting worse. What if these thirsty populations could be helped by harvesting the huge amounts of water floating over their heads in the form of clouds? The method is known. The challenge is to find a way to do it without damaging other parts of the global system in the process.

How to Kill a Cloud, a film by Tuija Halttunen
How to Kill a Cloud, a film by Tuija Halttunen

Important dilemmas

A remote and utterly peaceful corner of Europe seems to be the ideal place for such things. There is room to consider it a scientific and purely academic quest, and all moral considerations deal with possible negative consequences for nature itself.

One day Hannele Korhonen is met with a real challenge that could be a scientific breakthrough for her. The United Arab Emirates, an arid desert country with no precipitation, is heavily interested in rain enhancement science. The country in the Persian Gulf region prioritises obtaining adequate water to meet the needs of a growing population. Therefore the leadership has put up a grant of 1.5 million dollars to measure background aerosols in the desert.

The Finnish director Tuija Halttunen has created a wonderful documentary about Hannele Korhonen and her meeting with a different and far more complex world when she takes upon herself to do the job. She applies, and together with a handful of other experts, she spends three years in the UAE. It is a highly satisfying task, funding is adequate, and conditions are ideal. She moves from her modest office in Helsinki to luxurious conditions with five-star hotels and gourmet food.

But most of all, she is confronted with several dilemmas. She is no longer the government employee in safe and controlled Finland but realises that the investors have the big word. «You can’t do science by yourself», she says at some stage.

The challenge is to find a way to do it without damaging other parts of the global system in the process.

Popeye

Through her contrasting experience, this film raises important questions about the purity of science.

Is it okay to modify the atmosphere? There is a limited amount of water in the world. If you take it away in one place, will others lack it? But we already modify the atmosphere to a great extent with greenhouse gasses, and industry and traffic release huge amounts of aerosols all the time.

But that is only one aspect. The Emiratis hosting the foreign weather scientists are extremely friendly, and Hannele Korhonen feels nothing of the bias against women she had expected to meet in a conservative Islamic society. She is polite and correct all the way through, but in the film, we feel a nagging doubt about the real motives of her hosts. How are they going to use the water? While water is an important resource for humanity, it is also an effective tool to obtain power.

The Americans introduced the method of rain enhancement in 1947, but it soon faded away because of a lack of interest. But the method made a roaring comeback in 1967 in Vietnam, when American planes took part in an experimental operation called Popeye. Instead of bombs, they seeded clouds with silver iodide. Clouds started to die and emptied their cargo of billions of tons of water. Monsoon season continued for months- huge devastation and failed harvest. That resulted in a UN treaty banning the modification of the atmosphere for destructive purposes. Seventy-six countries ratified it, but among them are only a few Middle Eastern. The United Arab Emirates are not among them.

How to Kill a Cloud, a film by Tuija Halttunen
How to Kill a Cloud, a film by Tuija Halttunen

Ownership to the clouds

The problem is being discussed among the participating scientists. There is a tendency to believe that all is well, and Hannele Korhonen clearly feels some kind of obligation. She hails from a small village in central Finland, and as the first academic in her family, she honours what she learned from home, that you must finish work properly.

That is what she does. She completes her task successfully, and to a certain extent, she hopes for the best. Somewhere in the middle of the film, we see her and a German colleague studying clouds in the middle of the desert. She realises that right behind the mountains is Oman and the huge cumulus cloud, the size of a whole Colorado River, hanging there stem from the neighbouring country’s proximity to the sea. That makes her ask a question that might seem very academic back in Finland but is laden with risky importance in the Middle East: Who actually can claim ownership to the clouds?

Currently screening as part of the 25th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

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Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.

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