The god of Chinese weather

Every once in a while, the Chinese government inaudibly demonstrates its supreme control over life in the mainland. Now, I’m not exactly saying that we live in an oriental Hunger Games (or at least won’t get into the indisputable overlap between themes in the book and life out East), but the unbelievably fortuitous blue sky days on holidays and major government events can make you feel like you’re living in the arena. Beijing most recently flexed its weather manipulation muscles for the 两会, the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The days sandwiching the premier government event of the year, especially given the upcoming leadership turnover, were shrouded in 250+ levels of PM2.5, but the actual event days were so clear and sunny, it’s a wonder that officials weren’t given tanning breaks on Tiananmen Square.

The government’s mastery of weather manipulation gained world-wide recognition leading up to the 2008 Olympics, when Beijing took severe measures to ameliorate air pollution and create a picturesque celebration. Some involved more direct action to temporarily obscure the country’s rapid industrial reformation, for instance, suspending operations at hundreds of city-wide factories and taking 50% of cars off the road. However, the practice that brought China’s Weather Modification Program into the global spotlight was cloud seeding. Essentially, cloud seeding involves shooting cigarette-sized pellets of silver iodide into clouds. The chemical compound bonds easily with water, and therefore, when shot into a cloud, concentrates enough moisture to catalyze rainfall. During the Olympics, cloud seeding was used to ensure cloudless days, and rain out any creeping pollution in the evening.

Governments around the world, including the US, have been studying seeding since the 40s, but China is the most prominent practitioner. Bill Woodley, a cloud seeding expert from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has described China as the “epicenter of all weather modification activity.” The country annually spends upwards of USD 90 million on weather modification and employs about 37,000 workers. Most of employees are actually farmers trained to handle rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns that shoot pellets to seed in more rural locations.

The purpose of cloud seeding in China started out noble – the country wanted to mitigate the effects of drought and cultivate richer harvests. The results were so compelling (China claims cloud seeding produced 250 billion tons of rain between 1999 and 2006, and a 10% to 13% increase in Beijing reservoirs), however, that now, seeding has become a part of everyday life, deployed to avoid relatively ordinary weather, such as a heat wave in Shanghai. The government has even taken credit for the infamous 2009 Beijing snowstorm. And, the obsession is growing. In December, China made it an economic goal to increase precipitation volume by 10% before 2015 to increase grain yield amid nationwide drought. However, some scientists have questioned the efficacy of cloud seeding during a drought, due to the lack of…well…clouds.

Is China getting too excited about these pellets? Sure, they can temporarily help clear smoggy skies and relieve a dry field, but does cloud seeding in one area “steal” moisture meant for another area? I haven’t been able to find a proper answer, and although I do enjoy the breaks from the suffocating pollution, as the Gamemakers found out, you can’t play God forever.

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