They Will Build Clouds For Us

[Image: A C-141 Starlifter flying toward sunset; via Wikimedia].

A cloud of metal dust released by U.S. military airplanes in the skies 100 miles west of Los Angeles caused a temporary blackout in the city and “interfer[ed] with radar at airports in southern California” when the cloud began blowing back toward land.

What exactly was the purpose of this inadvertently weaponized offshore atmospheric event? “The Navy says it spread several thousand pounds of the particles of chaff in an operation 100 to 300 miles offshore designed to test its ability to jam radar,” the New York Times reported.

However, all of this actually occurred 25 years ago, in January 1985; I simply stumbled upon it while researching blackouts.

The idea, though, that there are airplanes flying somewhere out there west of Los Angeles creating strange weather for those of us on shore—clouds sculpted on the rising winds of the Southland, drifting unpredictably toward Santa Monica—seems both extraordinary and all too ready for capitalization. Sunsets on demand! Your least favorite celebrity gets married on a Malibu terrace and repurposed military aircraft paint the distant skies red, weaving fantastic ribbons of color in front of the falling sun.

It’s like something out of J.G. Ballard’s old short story “The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D,” in which famous portraits are carved into passing cloud forms by trained kite operators standing below on the shores of a tropical island. They have invented a stunning, lo-fi, vernacular 3D printing that can only be applied to the earth’s atmosphere.

“Lifted on the shoulders of the air above the crown of Coral D, we would carve seahorses and unicorns, the portraits of presidents and film stars, lizards and exotic birds,” Ballard wrote, describing this new mythology of atmospheric design and the “manicurists of the air” who so beautifully practiced it.

Or, for that matter, perhaps this strange meteorological event—the metal chaff of a new weather emperor, self-installed atop his flying throne, deploying cloud-weapons across the horizon—was an electromagnetically active twist on the anti-hero from Roberto Bolaño’s novel Distant Star. There, we meet a skywriting poet-pilot with a penchant for fascism who sells his political soul to the Nazis in order to write his Romantic words in huge drifting scripts above the mountains of South America.

He becomes “a Michelangelo of the sky,” as Ballard might have it.

Meanwhile, radar-jamming clouds of nanoparticles settle onto the plates of outdoor diners in Venice Beach, salting take-out pizzas and dusting the bodies of sunbathers, as screens inside the LAX control tower madly ping with invisible aircraft.

11 thoughts on “They Will Build Clouds For Us”

  1. Geoff, the first thing I thought of was The Animatrix and the two-part "Second Renaissance," which gives the backstory to the movie trilogy and features a "final solution" called "Dark Storm" — a deliberate attempt to blast particulate matter into the air and permanently black out machines. Stunning visuals too!

  2. Interestingly, the US actually repeated this trick. In Operation Desert Storm, they used a KIT-2 Tomahawk cruise missile which was filled with spools of carbon-fiber wire that shorted out power grids in Baghdad.

  3. I would love to direct everyone to Matthew Derby's brilliantly bizarre short fiction collection Superflat Times, which features a story where the clouds have become solid, crews must be dropped onto them to work on them. Also, they lend a new, literal meaning to the word "skyscraper," as the clouds loudly grind against tall buildings as they drift by.

  4. agree with sportsbabel, i watched animatrix too and that's the first thing come in my mind while reading this post.

    yet there's no "michelangelo of the sky" in animatrix… in the end, the clouds formed massive black, dark, that oh so electric clouds we've seen in the matrix trilogy

  5. Your entry, and the subsequent comments, reminded me of a short creative piece I read a few years ago by Lawrence Weschler titled, "LA Glows." It's in an anthology of LA writing edited by David Ulin. It is a beautifully written piece that explores the local folklore about the diaphanous atmospheres of the LA basin.

  6. … And here's a photo that I snapped on my iPhone just a few weeks ago while driving through Memphis. (This, for the record, was absolutely the worst spraying that I've seen, and I've been documenting this phenomena for a few years now; the photo hardly captures the extent of it. There were multiple planes flying in tandem at extremely high altitudes –back and forth, back and forth, until the sun was literally blotted out and the formerly clear sky turned into a pale, translucent white…)

  7. This is more than a regular practice; ask anyone who lives in Portland, Oregon or NYC or Texas or London about the strange cloud-seeders that fly back and forth across our skies all day long.

    A good little summation can be found here.

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