Hamburgers raining from clouds in the sky

Reel Science

The zaniest sci-fi movie on Netflix reveals a real way to manipulate the weather

Can you really control the weather? Here's what an expert has to say.

Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Animation

Sometimes, you come across a movie with a premise so outlandish that you can hardly believe it contains a shred of truth.

One such movie is the 2009 surprising box office hit, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, now streaming on Netflix. The animated sci-fi movie deals with the tinkering exploits of inventor Flint Lockwood, whose machine to turn food into water begins raining hamburgers — and yes, meatballs — from clouds in the sky.

Some sci-fi premises present a thin veneer of plausibility, but this one, based on a popular children’s book, does not: hamburgers falling from the sky are not realistic (and they probably wouldn’t be very tasty). But as it turns out, there is a real scientific concept buried deep in the clouds of this movie: weather modification, also known as cloud seeding. Yes, that’s right: humans can actually modify the weather — it’s just in very different ways from the movie’s protagonist.

Inverse speaks with Robert (Bob) Rauber, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, to explain the wild real-life meteorological science implicitly raised in the kooky animated sci-fi flick. Sadly, no amount of scientific innovation will make food fall from the sky — probably.

“If we’re out there and I see meatballs coming by, I’ll let you know,” Rauber jokingly tells Inverse.

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

Can you really control the weather?

In Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Flint Lockwood makes meatballs rain down from cloudy skies. In real life, scientists are using weather modification technology to increase rain and snowfall.Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures

The answer to this question falls somewhere between a yes and a no.

“Well, the first question I would ask is, what do you mean by control over the weather?” Rauber says.

We can modify the weather — but control it? Probably not. Scientists aren’t Zeus — they can’t make thunderbolts fly from the heavens or summon hurricanes.

“To me, controlling the weather means I can make it rain where I want, I can make it snow where I want, and I can stop things from happening somewhere where I want,” Rauber says. That’s not possible. But weather modification — otherwise known as cloud seeding — is possible in specific circumstances. In Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Flint can’t create clouds, but if there are clouds in the sky, he can use them to change the weather — well, generate “food weather.”

Similarly, if there are clouds in the sky, real-life scientists can manipulate their properties to increase precipitation like rainfall or snow. This is nothing new — scientists have been trying out cloud seeding in various forms since the 1940s and going into the Cold War. It’s only in recent years that the technology has gotten good enough that we’ve been able to accurately measure the results of cloud seeding programs, according to Rauber.

But what, exactly, is weather modification or cloud seeding? Here’s Rauber’s definition:

Weather modification is the introduction of some sort of material — typically either silver iodide tiny little salt particles — into a cloud to attempt to change the amount of precipitation coming out of the cloud, or characteristics of that precipitation, such as changing the size of hail.

Let’s unpack how cloud seeding works in the next section.

How does cloud seeding work?

A cloud seeding operation to increase rainfall takes place as an airplane flies through the skies of Thailand.Getty

Cloud seeding or weather modification is infinitely more sophisticated than Flint’s food weather machine that converts water to meals in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but there is a similar conceit in both cases: sending a device into the skies that alters the properties of precipitation from those clouds.

Cloud seeding typically involves injecting silver iodide or salt particles into a cloud using airplanes, but both methods work differently.

The first method using salt particles increases precipitation from clouds, and these efforts to increase rainfall have primarily occurred in the tropics, particularly in China and Southeast Asia. This kind of cloud seeding involves warmer clouds, where water drops collide and produce bigger droplets. These water droplets coalesce and form bigger droplets, which then fall from the clouds as raindrops. When scientists disperse salt particles, the clouds can form bigger droplets that coalesce more readily, leading to heavier and faster rainfall.

But Rauber doesn’t think this type of cloud seeding is especially helpful because it’s difficult to collect this increased rain in a way that’s useful to humans.

“The big issue with that type of seeding is you might be able to make the cloud rain more, but you know, the rain that lands on the ground is going to evaporate. So how do you collect it?” Rauber asks.

The second type of cloud seeding involves injecting silver iodide into clouds, typically over mountainous areas containing snow, and this is where Rauber’s research on weather modification comes into play. To understand this type of cloud seeding, you need to know two things.

First: You probably learned that liquid water freezes at 32 Fahrenheit or 0 Celsius, but that’s not entirely true.

“Water will freeze at that temperature if it contains tiny little particles that are not water — that act as little seeds on which the ice can grow,” Rauber says.

Water lacking these particles can freeze at lower temperatures — as low as minus 40 Fahrenheit — and is known as supercooled water.

Second: water particles in clouds grow exceptionally slowly and are more likely not to turn into raindrops that fall from the sky as precipitation. So, scientists use the silver iodide method of cloud seeding to make it more likely for these water particles to fall from the sky, specifically as snow in the mountains over the western U.S. If you add extra snow over a greater number of storms, you can build the snowpack higher than it naturally would be.

“Basically, what we’re doing in cloud seeding is we’re converting the supercooled water to ice far enough upstream in the mountain that the ice particles can grow and fall on them out in the snow,” Rauber explains.

Can we control the weather to save us from climate change?

A gauge measures water levels on the Rio Nambe amid extreme drought conditions in the area on June 3, 2022, near Nambe, New Mexico. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 90 percent of New Mexico is experiencing extreme drought conditions amid a climate-change fueled megadrought in the Southwestern United States.Getty

Climate change is causing a historically massive megadrought in the western United States. With landscapes starved of water, can scientists use cloud seeding to save people in these areas from drought?

“The answer is no,” Rauber says bluntly.

Basically, cloud seeding only works if there are, well, clouds. We can’t make clouds appear out of thin air. No clouds mean no possibility of rain — either naturally or via cloud seeding.

But Rauber says there is one way we can use cloud seeding to help adapt to climate change. Warming temperatures mean there’s less snowpack available in mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevadas, the source of most Californians’ drinking water. One recent study even suggests that the Sierra Nevada snowpack will disappear in the next quarter-century.

Cloud seeding could help increase that snowpack, therefore providing more drinking water during times of drought to the western U.S.

“The snowpack is a natural reservoir,” Rauber says, adding “the idea with cloud seeding in the mountains in the wintertime is to try to build that snowpack.”

Real-life weather modification ultimately deals with far more serious issues than Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but just as Flint Lockwood learns in the movie, there are limits to how much humans can control the weather in real life, too.

“Nature is so much more powerful and stronger than anything a single human or a group of humans can do,” Rauber says.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is now streaming on Netflix.