SCIENCE: Weather Powers and Global Climate Change

I’ve got climate on the brain. I’ve been studying it and reading up on a lot of the nitty gritty about just how it works. Right now we’re experiencing a period of anthropogenic (mad-made) induced global climate change. (If you’ve not a fan of climate change or just plain don’t understand keep reading but also feel free to e-mail me.) I think it’s fair to assume our favorite superheoric worlds also underwent the Industrial Revolution and outside of the Watchmen, where Dr. Manhattan actually changed the course of technological history, I’d argue that they’re all getting ready to deal with some global warming too. So I got to thinking: Could any of the people with the power to control weather fix the problem?

The first thing it’s really important to note is the difference between weather and climate. Weather is chaotic short term variability in atmospheric conditions in a specific place. The chaotic nature of this system is why 10-day forecasts are often wrong. The more you try to extend predictions of short term chaotic systems into the near future the more likely those chaotic fluctuations will make you wrong. Alternatively, climate is the long term trends for an area. You may think that if you can’t predict in the short term, what hope is there for the long term? Well when you start looking at a system that’s chaotic in the short term over a very long time scale the chaos actually gets factored out and you get a decent signal to noise ratio. You can sort of think of seasons as the in-between of weather and climate, they’re relatively predictable changes in weather over yearly timescales.

So within Marvel, who can we call on to help us with climate change? The obvious answer is the X-woman Storm. Her whole shtick is to control the environment. My problem is one of scale. The reason earth is undergoing climate change is carbon dioxide. There are other factors, to be certain, but if you had to pick one this is the one you’d pick for a lot of reasons I won’t go into here, e-mail offer still stands though. This is where Storm falls a bit short because she, as far as I know, can’t really control things at a molecular level to alter CO2 into another gas. But she’s not out of the picture yet because one thing she could do is hook us up with the right clouds. Turns out clouds high in the atmosphere lead to global cooling, whereas low clouds lead to global warming. Clouds are really tricky for climate modelers because they honestly aren’t sure which type is having a greater effect, but we do know what each affect is. To that end, Storm could make sure low clouds are minimal and high clouds are maximal, and she could maybe even work with scientists to test the exact effects of each.

Furthermore, as climate change progresses weather will get more extreme; droughts, floods, storms, you name it. Storm could act as a buffer when things start to get crazy, alleviated droughts, trying to even out rainfall to prevent floods and just generally doing her best to minimize damage and death to the puny humans caught in an increasingly hostile world. It’d probably become her full-time job, but she’d be doing a whole lot of good without having to hurt anyone to do it (which seems to be a burgeoning secondary theme to my columns). I consider her situation roughly analogous to what Weather Wizard would be capable of in the DCU but I have a hard time believing he’d be so willing to pitch in and help out for the good of humanity; you’d have to cut him a check at the very least.

Another X-Man, Iceman, may be able to do more good than the Weather Witch. Why is a bit complex (isn't it always?). A lot of what complicates climatic systems is feedback. Feedback is when a change occurs and that change either strengthens or weakens the thing that caused the change in the first place. If your home has a swear jar and you swear you have to put money in the jar, if you a condition where the act of dropping coins onto other coins makes you swear then you have feedback, if you’re required to put more money in each time you swear that’s a positive feedback loop because the forcing (the swear word) affects the response (money in the jar) which in turn reinforces the forcing. Make sense? Good. Usually, climate is balanced between positive and negative feedbacks such that it is relatively stable. One of the most important feedbacks for earth’s climate is the ice albedo feedback. Albedo is a measure of how reflective something is. Ice is very reflective, it’s why Captain Cold wears those awesome glasses, so if the earth is cold enough to have a lot of ice on it that ice actually reflects a lot of the sunlight hitting earth right back into space, preventing warming. Cold earth –> more ice –> less sun warming –> colder earth –> even more ice. The astute among you have probably heard of these pesky things called “Ice Ages” where this feedback loop gets a wee bit out of control and causes some serious climate change in the opposite direction that we’re facing now. Well good news! An ice age would be impossible today because there is simply too much CO2 in the atmosphere to even let it get cold enough for a snowball earth scenario. To that end I say we send Iceman to North Pole in the summer and the South Pole in the summer, they have opposing seasons [Pictured: Iceman doing it wrong, if he sticks to the plan he’ll never see the moon again]. If he’s there in the summer he can prevent as much ice from possible as melting and grow new ice if he can. Either we’ll get our emissions together or he’ll keep working at it until our obliquity changes to cut him some slack. Again, there are a few ice powered people in the DCU but most of them are villains, Ice being the exception but I never saw her as being as powerful as Iceman so I say you coerce the villains and/or hope Ice is up to the challenge.

Wow, I really didn’t expect to get that much out of only two characters with weather/environmental powers. If people are digging this I can always come back for part 2, but for now I invite your critiques of my solutions, science (even fantastical comic science) thrives on peer review so let’s hash it out!

Ryan Haupt is at the annual meeting for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology this week so he’s even more science-y than usual. He missed NYCC because of it, which is very sad, but he does get to hang out with his Science… sort of co-host, Patrick, which is some consolation.


  1. Here’s what I like about Frozone from the Incredibles:  He is very specific about where the ice comes from.  It turns out he affects the local entropy and pulls moisture out of the atmosphere to create ice.  If that’s how Iceman’s powers work, there’s a whole additional level to the potential to affect climate change.  Here goes:

    Iceman is supposed to be one of the most powerful mutants.  Is it possible that, if he had very dry air to work with, he could actually strip CO2 out of the atmosphere in the form of dry ice?  Lets see how this could be applied:

     1) If Storm could bring in Santa-Ana style dry wind into the vicinity, Iceman could deposit the CO2 into a massive stockpile of dry ice. 

    2) Storm could then bring in moist air

    3) Storm could use lightning to apply an oxidizing voltage to the dry ice, converting the CO2 it into carbon monoxide and oxygen. 

    4) The carbon monoxide would spontaneously react with the atmospheric water, generating methanol (a low energy density organic fuel with a combustion enthalpy of 715 kJ/mol).

    5) Iceman could then condense the methanol into liquid, turning atmospheric CO2 into a handy carbon neutral fuel source. 

    Admittedly, all this energy would have magically come from the use of mutant powers, but the net result would be pretty eco-friendly. 


  2. You could do a part 2?!! Really?!!  REALLY?!!  You’re not trying to fool us here are you?!! Oh man, yes!!!  I’ll read a part two!!!

    (At this point I’m liable to break my exclamation key if I keep saying how eager I am for a part two.)

  3. Okay, here’s a solution…Comic Book Style!

    1. Reed Richard’s locates a parallel Earth suffering from a global cooling problem (hopefully on a similar scale).
    2. Open two "worm holes" to the parallel Earth, one for out-flow of air, and the other for in-flow.
    3. Close "worm holes" once the problem is solved!

    Possible Problems:
    * Hope you’re not letting in nasty airborne microbes which will destroy all life.
    * Watch out for the Celestials! (See Fantastic Four’s Council of Reeds)

    Alternate version of the plan:
    Locate pre-industrial parallel Earth, and steal their air.

    Upsides with the Alternate:
    * Villains more likely to participate now.

    Possible Problems with the Alternate:
    * Good bye morals!  We’re all villains now.
    * Hope they don’t have mightier super-heroes.
    * Again, CELESTIALS! (Ya know, Council of Reeds)

  4. (Yes, I purposely picked a solution requiring "alternate dimensions" / "universes". I wanted to keep the running gag going from previous articles.)

  5. Oh, and I should have said this before, great article!

  6. I think a lot of Iceman’s utility in fighting climate change would depend on how he gets away with violating the Kelvin-Planck statement.  This is a rule which forms the basis of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and it essentially means that you can’t cool something down without heating something else up even more. 

     Now, if the 2nd law can be completely ignored, Iceman can just keep making the Earth colder to his hearts content and essentially remove energy from the universe.  However, if we assume that Iceman’s power is somehow increasing the entropy of the surrounding system (Earth) at the same time he is lowering the local entropy then you’d have a problem.  Lets assume Iceman’s localized cooling process is very efficient (90%).  For every kilogram of ice he creates (lets assume he’s freezing water) he would remove 333 kiloJoules of heat from the local system (the ice) but would then add 366 kilojoules of heat to the overall global system. 

    Therefore, he would have to pay close attention and make sure that more heat is removed from earth by the modified albedo than would be added by earth due to the sub-100% efficiency dictated by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.  The best way to achieve this would be to make sure the reflective ice he puts down is extremely thin.  Also, freezing the ice very quickly could help because fast-frozen ice has a smaller crystal structure and scatters light more effectively. 




  7. Wouldn’t the simplest solution be to knock earth farther from the sun?  I think Annihilus did that once.  Negative Zone for life.

  8. I thought we were just going to drop extraterrestrial ice cubes in the sea.

  9. I don’t want to get political or overly contentious about this subject but I just don’t buy into the whole anthropogenic global warming/climate change theory. Solar output and atmospheric water vapor have a much larger contribution to heating or cooling of the planet than CO2, which I believe is a pretty minor greenhouse gas as it is. Historically, it has been warmer with more CO2 in the air and cooler with less and all this BEFORE we started the industrial revolution. CO2 is plant food. Always has been. Always will be. We could all swear off fossil fuels tomorrow and a volcano could blow somewhere in the pacific and wipe out all that good karma. Contrary to what Man-Bear-Pig (AKA Al Gore) says, the science is not settled.

  10. Oops! I meant to say that "its been warmer with less and cooler with more" Give me a break…it’s 5 am!

  11. @EJ

    Okay, I realize this is a comic book website, and I do not want to get political.  That having been said, your argument is pretty weak.  Its nice that you choose to believe CO2 is a pretty minor greenhouse gas.  However, CO2 is very effective at absorbing infrared light.  Thats all it takes. 

     Its true that water vapor is a more effective greenhouse gas on a per molecule basis, but once too much water vapor builds up in the atmosphere this thing called rain happens and it all falls on the ground.  The biggest reason CO2 is responsible for global warming is that it is increasing the greenhouse factor in parts of the earth where the upper atmosphere tends to be very dry. 

    Simply put, Earth tends to shed heat the fastest at night in arid regions.  Try going out in a hot desert and you’ll notice how fast it turns cold once the sun goes down.  Changing the heat absorbance of the atmosphere in these regions afects the rate at which the planet.  I’m sorry if this contradicts your personal opinion of the way you’d like things to be. 

    I fully acknowledge that CO2 is plant food and that non-manmade sources also add CO2 to the atmosphere, but I’m not sure how either of these facts bolster your argument that manmade CO2 is not contributing to climate change.  I appreciate a good South Park as much as the next guy, but I try not to let satire control my world view even if its really funny.   I’d like to see your explanation of why you believe that significantly changing the thermal absorbance of major parts of the atmosphere should not affect the temperature of the system.  Until then I’m just going to assume you’re regurgitating political propaganda. 

  12. @Aalbatr0ss

    I’m not so sure that we are significantly changing anything. Our output of CO2 as compared to natural output is a drop in the bucket.

    I’m a skeptic while you seem to be an alarmist. We’re going to have to agree to disagree.

  13. @EJ  Quite curious what I stated that was "alarmist". 

    Just to be clear, first you stated that CO2 isn’t much of a greenhouse gas.  Now you’re arguing that it doesn’t matter because manmade CO2 donsn’t account for the change in atmospheric CO2.  You aren’t very consistent in your skepticism.


  14. @Aalbatr0ss

     Hey look at that! CO2 is insignifigant on multiple levels! Fairly consistent. I could cherry-pick my own stats as well to further my stance but it won’t get us anywhere. I’ll trust in my "political propaganda" and you can curl up with yours.

     Dude. Agree to disagree. Moving on.

  15. Hey guys, saying "I don’t want to get political" and then getting political doesn’t work.

    You wanna have this argument, have it somewhere else. Any more get deleted.

  16. Sorry Josh. Got carried away.

  17. (Please don’t delete.)

    Since I read the words "climate change" and "skeptic", and Josh is looking to move this along, anyone and everyone interested in this topic could go to The Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe Discussion Forums for a discussion on climate change.  This is a site devoted to science and skepticism (which everyone so far appears to be interested in).

    Also, The Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe is a great podcast, in a recent episode they interviewed Donald Prothero a professor and researcher into climatic changes from 30 to 40 million years ago (see episode 268, September 1, 2010 – advance to the 40:30 mark to just hear the interview – I found it a very interesting interview, with a lot of relevance for today.

    And the forums should have discussion on this episode, too.

    That’s all folks.

  18. (Sorry, mistyped a little. Advance to the 40:50 mark in the episode to get the interview. I know it’s only a 20 second difference, but that can feel like a long time when someone tells you something you believe to be precise.)