The scene is straight out of a J.J. Abrams movie. Someone hears a crash in their backyard, and all the dogs in the neighborhood start barking. A retiree—an old Navy man—cautiously opens his screen door and makes his way to a box. It’s labeled “Harmless Scientific Experiment.”
What he’s discovered is actually a Cloud Machine, a device every bit as incredible as it sounds. A project by Karolina Sobecka for the environmental art project Amateur Human, Cloud Machine is a “personal weather modification device” capable of seeding your own five-meter cloud in the sky. “However, coupled with the right atmospheric conditions, it can potentially start a chain reaction,” Sobecka teases, “just as contrails can form and spread into huge cirrus clouds with the introduction of a little more moisture and some particles into the air.”
The Cloud Machine consists of a pair of weather balloons fitted with an Arduino, GPS, cameras, and an altimeter. As it reaches a predetermined altitude, it releases Cloud Condensation Nuclei—or cloud seeds (they’re just sea salt)—along with heat and water vapor. If all goes well, the moisture condenses into a cloud.
“Picking the right weather is pretty important,” Sobecka writes. “On a low-humidity day, the cloud will evaporate really quickly, and on a cloudy day—well, somebody beat us to it.”
Assuming the conditions are perfect and you’re able to place a cloud where there wasn’t a cloud before, what good is that single cloud? It’s not as if you can place the cloud perfectly to create shade, nor will this cloud do anything to water your lawn. Alone, the cloud is merely an art project. En masse, Sobecka sees their utility in reflecting back the sun’s heat while shading us from global warming.
“Clouds are the wildcards in the climate debate, since there’s apparently no effective way of anticipating what the effect of rising global temperatures would have on the cloud cover,” she says. “The opinions are split: The clouds might be our saviors, rebalancing the climate all on their own, or they can also be victims of global warming—and without clouds we’d be in trouble.”