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

Six decades after its enthusiastic beginnings, weather modification has been granted few successes by American scientists. In mountainous areas, seeding seems to be able to moderately increase snowfall in the winter. Insurance companies paid fewer hail-damage claims over the years in counties where private anti-hail contractors were at work. Recent studies also suggest that seeding clouds in the tropics with salt seems to produce more rain, though later and farther away than current theories can explain. According to a 2003 National Academy of Sciences Board of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate report, progress in weather modification “is not possible without a concerted and sustained effort at understanding basic processes in the atmosphere."
In their own studies, Chinese scientists have concluded that their cloud seeding increases rainfall by 10 to 25 percent. They have seeded clouds not only to offset drought and fill reservoirs but even to fight forest fires. Talks have been underway with officials in Spain and Egypt, who are said to be interested in the purchase of modification instruments, and in 2005 China signed a bilateral agreement with Cuba to begin operations there. “We’re not that far ahead of other countries,” the WMO’s Zhang explains. “It’s just because we’re still working at it continuously, trying to tackle these problems, that we have results."

The greatest recent triumph of weather modification in Beijing wasn’t planned as a weather-control operation at all. In fall 2006, Beijing hosted a pan-African summit. It was preceded by a rushed beautification job in which workers hung floating red lanterns and photomural billboards along major roadways and filled in medians with new sod and saplings. To prevent congestion, the city’s traffic authorities banned most government vehicles from the roads, cutting traffic by a quarter. An obliging west wind swept away traces of the old gridlock just before the summit. The sky turned a gorgeous autumnal blue—a Hudson Valley sky, not a Huabei Plain one. The azure stayed all week. It was beyond anything the Meteorological Bureau had ever accomplished.

In August 2007, the city tried a repeat performance. While the Meteorological Services Center utilized its rain-fighting artillery, Beijing tried an even more drastic traffic cutback—alternately allowing only odd- or even-numbered license plates on the road. But what was announced as a two-week trial only ran for four days because of a bureaucratic miscommunication. The haze remained.

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Issue 25

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