The People's Weather

At this summer’s Beijing Olympics, China puts a 50-year experiment to the test: Officials are betting weather modification can keep the sun shining on the Games. Despite shaky science, the government is confident (not for the first time) that man can best nature. Whatever their chances, there’s plenty at stake—because all that development and urban renewal won’t look so good beneath a curtain of smog.

By Tom Scocca

Beijing under the haze of industry and construction, October 2007. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

This year, much of Zhang’s time is taken up with a new obligation. Beijing is preparing for the coming Summer Olympics with an all-encompassing effort involving new subway lines, trophy architectural projects, and an urban renewal campaign that has cut huge swaths through what’s considered the old city. Over it all hovers the problem of the weather—which Chinese officials have been manipulating for 50 years now—and what to do about it. The Beijing Games are meant to mark China’s emergence on the world stage as a 21st-century global superpower. China would like that stage to be clean and dry.

The Olympics will take place during the brief but emphatic wet season; on average, more than half the city’s annual precipitation falls in July and August. The National Stadium, a tangled-looking lattice of monumental steelwork known as the “Bird’s Nest,” is open to the skies. The original design, by groundbreaking Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, included a retractable roof that was eventually scrapped in a cost-cutting maneuver.

So the weather administration is responsible for standing between the Olympics and the real possibility of an untimely downpour. History suggests the natural chance of rain during the opening and closing ceremonies is 50 percent, Beijing bureau deputy chief engineer Wang Yubin announced at a press conference about weather and the Olympics last year. Officials are hoping the same technology that’s meant to bring more rain can also make it rain less or make the rain fall somewhere else. Wang was accompanied by Zhang and by representatives of the Academy of Meteorological Sciences, the Research Institute of Urban Meteorology, and the Central Meteorological Observatory. They discussed the interagency work of the Beijing Olympic Meteorological Services Center, a temporary weather authority that will blanket the city with real-time mini-forecasts. “We find that our measure is quite effective if it deals with rainfall in a limited area,” Wang explained. If there is widespread or heavy rain, he warned, “at present we cannot reduce this rainfall to the minimum, to be frank."

The Beijing rainmaking command center occupies a large seventh-floor room in the bureau’s compound, near the Jingmi Canal on the west side of the city. I visited it on a late-spring day last year. One wall was taken up by windows that could have been called panoramic, had they faced out on something other than a Beijing afternoon.

If weather is what you see and feel when you go outside, then the majority of Beijing’s weather is manmade, with or without the help of the WMO. On this particular day, the city looked as if someone had shaken out a giant sack of instant concrete over it. The Fragrant Hills, less than five miles to the west, were invisible from outside the bureau.

The murky light could have passed, to the untrained eye, for a sign that a shower was imminent, but the weather modifiers weren’t stirring. In a bank of ten computer screens across the room from the windows, only two were on—one showing a radar display, another showing graphs of cloud temperature and water content. A voice broadcast over speakers delivered a forecast: overcast again tomorrow, lasting possibly until the next day.

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Issue 25

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