The outbreak began so slowly that no one in Dallas perceived it at first. In June 2012, a trickle of people began showing up in emergency rooms broiling with fever, complaining that their necks were stiff and that bright lights hurt their eyes. The numbers were initially small; but by the middle of July, there were more than 50 victims each week, slumping in doctors’ offices or carried into hospitals comatose or paralyzed from inflammation in their brains. In early August, after nine people died, Dallas County declared a state of emergency: It was caught in an epidemic of what turned out to be West Nile virus, the worst ever experienced by a city in the United States. By the end of the year, 1,162 people had tested positive for the mosquito-borne virus; 216 had become sick enough to be hospitalized; and 19 were dead.
For the past few years, the Harvard professor David Keith has been sketching this vision: Ten Gulfstream jets, outfitted with special engines that allow them to fly safely around the stratosphere at an altitude of 70,000 feet, take off from a runway near the Equator. Their cargo includes thousands of pounds of a chemical compound — liquid sulfur, let’s suppose — that can be sprayed as a gas from the aircraft. It is not a one-time event; the flights take place throughout the year, dispersing a load that amounts to 25,000 tons. If things go right, the gas converts to an aerosol of particles that remain aloft and scatter sunlight for two years. The payoff? A slowing of the earth’s warming — for as long as the Gulfstream flights continue.