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

But the theory and technology were no match for last year’s monsoon. August was marked by powerful downpours and flooding in the city. One evening that month, I went to a neighborhood restaurant under clear skies. By the time I finished dinner, it was as if the streets were being sprayed with a celestial firehose: A row of mature trees had been downed, cabs crept through water up to their hubcaps, and pedestrians waded with their pants rolled past their knees.
Thunder was rumbling at the Xinzhuang Village firing station when I arrived one afternoon last June, riding up a dirt lane in a city taxicab. Beijing’s whole network of modifiers had been at work earlier in the week, the WMO said, and the humidity hadn’t budged. The launch site was on a ridgetop 1,400 feet above sea level in the middle of a 50-acre orchard run by a farmer named Jing Baoguo. An island platform stood in the middle of an irrigation reservoir, under a striped canopy, with catwalks leading to and from it. Along the far side of the enclosure was a grape arbor; on the near side, tomato plants flanked weather instruments.

The artillery stood off to the right: two antiaircraft guns, their barrels poking out over the fence top, and a pair of blocky rocket launchers mounted on single-axle trailers. In front of a large shed sat a silver-iodide RGY-1 burner, a gleaming barrel-shaped contraption with three wheels, a conical nose, and a long chimney that looked like a barbecue smoker. By the side wall of the shed was a white doghouse with a medium-sized black dog inside.

Jing, a wavy-haired man in earth tone slacks and a pullover, leased the orchard six years ago, after working as a purchaser in a local trading organization. After his trees suffered hail damage that year, the Beijing Meteorological Bureau approached him about becoming a weather modifier and setting up a station on his land. The Xinzhuang site is one of four the bureau has added since 2001, with farmers supplying the property, local government funding construction, and the bureau supplying the guns and other equipment. The modifiers are paid 50 yuan, or about $7, for every shell fired, which would typically top out at six on a day like today.

Heavy clouds were blowing overhead and a sprinkle of rain began to fall. This was a rain-enhancement opportunity. An assistant, wearing a round straw hat, ducked into the shed and began bringing out rockets, one by one, and loading them into the nearest launcher. He slid each one home, lining up the tailfins with slits in the firing tubes. The launcher held a half-dozen rockets at once.

Jing and his assistant swung the launcher around and cranked it skyward. Orders for modification begin with an advisory from the Beijing bureau to its district sub-bureaus, alerting them to a suitable weather system. The district offices mobilize the local stations and direct them to fire. Via cell phone, the station got the final orders: No firing today. Air traffic controllers, the ultimate authority, had vetoed the operation. “Lots of airplanes circle this area,” said Jing.

We retreated to the platform in the middle of the irrigation tank, where Jing had put out apricots and cherries. Rain fell on the canopy, and Jing poured hot mineral water from a thermos. He had originally been skeptical of modification, he said, but at least in the case of hail prevention, “it definitely works.” Pointing to an apricot, Jing added, “Before the guns were installed, the hail was as big as this."

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Issue 25

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