The dry sky : future scenarios for humanity’s modification of the atmospheric water cycle

Patrick W. Keys*, Lan Wang-Erlandsson, Michele Lee Moore, Agnes Pranindita, Fabian Stenzel, Olli Varis, Rekha Warrier, R. Bin Wong, Paolo D’Odorico, Carl Folke

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
27 Downloads (Pure)


Non-Technical Summary. Human societies are changing where and how water flows through the atmosphere. However, these changes in the atmospheric water cycle are not being managed, nor is there any real sense of where these changes might be headed in the future. Thus, we develop a new economic theory of atmospheric water management, and explore this theory using creative story-based scenarios. These scenarios reveal surprising possibilities for the future of atmospheric water management, ranging from a stock market for transpiration to on-demand weather. We discuss these story-based futures in the context of research and policy priorities in the present day. Technical Summary. Humanity is modifying the atmospheric water cycle, via land use, climate change, air pollution, and weather modification. Historically, atmospheric water was implicitly considered a ‘public good’ since it was neither actively consumed nor controlled. However, given anthropogenic changes, atmospheric water can become a 'common-pool’ good (consumable) or a 'club’ good (controllable). Moreover, advancements in weather modification presage water becoming a 'private’ good, meaning both consumable and controllable. Given the implications, we designed a theoretical framing of atmospheric water as an economic good and used a combination of methods in order to explore possible future scenarios based on human modifications of the atmospheric water cycle. First, a systematic literature search of scholarly abstracts was used in a computational text analysis. Second, the output of the text analysis was matched to different parts of an existing economic goods framework. Then, a group of global water experts were trained and developed story-based scenarios. The resultant scenarios serve as creative investigations of the future of human modification of the atmospheric water cycle. We discuss how the scenarios can enhance anticipatory capacity in the context of both future research frontiers and potential policy pathways including transboundary governance, finance, and resource management. Social Media Summary. Story-based scenarios reveal novel future pathways for the management of the atmospheric water cycle.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere11
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal Sustainability
Publication statusPublished - 20 Mar 2024
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Earth systems (land
  • economics
  • ecosystem services
  • policies
  • politics and governance
  • water and atmospheric)
  • water security


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