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

Near the doorway of the weather-modification room was a relief model of the municipality in tans and greens with white tags marking the bureau facilities. The city proper is dead flat, resting on an inland offshoot of the Huabei coastal plain. Around it is a deep bowl formed by overlapping mountain ranges—the Taihang to the west and the Yan to the north and northwest. Many of the tags, marking firing stations, were scattered on the high ground in Beijing’s rural districts.
A row of past and present cloud-seeding rockets stood on the floor beside the relief map, including an olive, waist-high RYI-6300, the model currently in use. A 37-millimeter silver-iodide antiaircraft shell completed the set. The Beijing bureau buys its equipment from State-Owned Factory No. 556 in Wuhai City, Inner Mongolia, a former military plant that now makes weather-control gear and industrial blasting fuses.

Over the past decade, Beijing has sought to improve its air quality by moving heavy industry out of town to neighboring Hebei Province and the port city of Tianjin. Even the venerable Shougang Iron Works, a mascot of China’s industrial might, is being uprooted for the Olympics. But when the wind blows off the ocean, from the south and the east, it carries the factory-choked air of Hebei and Tianjin up the coastal plain, until the mountains funnel it to a halt over the capital. The city’s Environmental Protection Bureau keeps an annual tally of “blue-sky days” on which air quality falls into the two lowest classes of its five-level pollution scale (at level five, residents are warned to stay indoors and avoid exercise). Each year brings a new, higher quota of blue-sky days for the city to meet; in 2007, the target was 245 days. The city logged 246, thanks to December 30 and 31—a pair of sunny days that followed a two-week stretch of filthy ones. International media outlets also noted that the government had scored an improbably large number of days that just cleared the cutoff for “blue-sky” status.

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Issue 25

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