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

Technically, summer is less polluted than other seasons, in part because the lower portion of the atmosphere known as the planetary boundary layer is higher, fewer people are burning coal, and the government doesn’t include ozone—the primary component of smog—in its pollution index. Regardless, Olympic officials are making contingency plans for rescheduling events if certain days are too dirty. Athletes worried about particulates in their lungs may descend on the city wearing filter masks, taking them off for public appearances and competition only. Last year, the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, expressed his concern to CNN about scheduling “endurance sports like the cycling race, where you have to compete for six hours. These are examples of competitions that might be postponed or delayed to another day."
Weather modification has a vexed and winding history, but China’s position is straightforward: It is the world’s number one nation in the field, however debated the field itself may be. The country spends up to $90 million annually on weather-manipulation projects, and the Meteorological Law of the People’s Republic of China directs “governments at or above the county level” to “enhance their leadership over weather modification” and “carry out work in this field.” According to Yao Zhanyu, a weather-modification expert and professor at the Academy of Meteorological Sciences, climate control was first proposed by weather bureau chief Tu Changwang in 1956. Mao gave it his blessing: “Manmade rain is very important,” he commented. “I hope that meteorological professionals put more effort into it.” By the summer of 1958, the first rain-seeding flights took place in Jilin and Gansu provinces. This August—when the Olympics’ opening ceremonies take place—a more modest public celebration in Jilin province will honor 50 years of weather modification by the People’s Republic.

China’s meteorologists, though, weren’t the first to try cloud seeding. The General Electric Laboratory launched the first field experiments in 1946. The original principle established by the GE experiments was sound, and momentum for research grew so much that at one point in the ’70s, the United States spent $20 million annually on projects. Forty years ago, it was at least as plausible to trigger a downpour as to send a man to the moon, according to Hugh Willoughby, a meteorology professor at Florida International University who took part in major rain-making and hurricane-taming studies during the ’70s and early ’80s. But if American scientists want to pursue weather modification today, he says, “The burden of proof is really on them.” Presently the country spends only $500,000 on the science.

GE’s original starting point was that seeding can cause ice to form in cold clouds, or droplets to condense in warm ones. Yet cloud physics, it turns out, is considerably more complex than rocket science: The moon is an object of known size, moving predictably through space at a distance of about 240,000 miles. To put a man on the moon, he is put in a spaceship on a rocket and shot closer and closer to the target. A cloud seeder, by contrast, is never shooting at the same target twice. Not only is today’s cloud unlike yesterday’s, it is unlike the cloud it was five minutes ago. Its top is unlike its bottom, and the two may be changing places. Liquid water in it may be colder than neighboring ice. Rain falling inside it may never reach the ground.

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Issue 25

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