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In search of a sunny day: China and its pursuit of the status of “the master of the weather”

What to do when the arid region requires rain? Attack thunderclouds with chemical shells from artillery cannons.

The military aims at the clouds for sowing in Wuhan. Getty Photos

Since the spring of 2018, Chinese meteorologists have been working on a weather modification project, which, according to the authors, will produce 7% more rain every year – this will seriously change the situation in the arid regions of the country. The program needs a lot of money, but the Chinese authorities do not mind: the last thirty years the country has been defending its title as the main researcher in the field of weather modification, despite the skepticism of outside observers.

Partly inspired by the Soviet legacy, Chinese meteorologists first “banned” the rain during the Beijing Olympics, and now they are hoping to move further than any other country. Even if the race for control of the weather will be meaningless.

Great defense of the Beijing Olympics

On August 8, 2008, the Summer Olympic Games started in Beijing. While the Chinese sportsmen diligently earned gold medals for their country, the meteorological administration kept a close eye on the weather. The authorities promised that until the end of the Games, on August 24, they will not be overshadowed by any precipitations – the agency was responsible for these words.

To protect the open Beijing stadium for 91 thousand seats meteorologists have developed a three-stage plan. First, with the help of satellites, airplanes, radars and data processing servers IBM Power Systems specialists simulated a zone of 44 thousand square kilometers, which allowed hourly predict weather changes.

Given the opportunity to closely monitor the clouds that could pass over Beijing, closer to the beginning of the Games, scientists asked for support of aircraft and artillery. With their help, in the approaching clouds silver iodide was scattered, thus “squeezing” the cloud before it gets a chance to disrupt the Olympics. Finally, any rain clouds near Beijing were sowed with chemicals that held the rain down until the clouds passed the “forbidden zone”.

Devices used in China to seed the clouds in 2007. Holiday pictures AP

In 2008, the annual budget of the China Meteorological Department for weather modification was $ 60-90 million. No other country could boast of such a scale, but, according to the magazine MIT Technology Review, Chinese experts praised the Soviet colleagues and their research heritage.

According to the Chinese authorities, from 2006 to 2016, weather modifications increased the amount of precipitation by 55 billion cubic meters. This is more than what is contained in the “Three Gorges” hydroelectric power station in China, the largest power plant in the world.

In the USSR, there have been a lot of research in the field of weather modification, but Beijing meteorologists have pointed to the history of protecting Moscow from the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. This defense became known two years before the Olympics, in 2006. In the fall of 1986, the military in the contaminated zone was strongly “tamponing” the reactor, but seasonal cyclones drove the dust from the contaminated areas to the east, jeopardizing the areas from the Caspian Sea to Moscow.

In order to protect the capital, the Ministry of Defense used clouding – this is a classic method of weather modification, which involves the introduction of clouds or clouds of reagents (most often silver iodide), which provokes precipitation. The operation was commanded by Air Force Major Alexei Grushin, who, years after the collapse of the USSR, spoke about the details of the task.

Elimination of the consequences of the accident in Chernobyl. Photo by Vitaly Ankov, RIA Novosti

For the seeding of infected clouds, meteorological stations (sometimes called meteorological bombers) were chosen, which were converted by the Tu-16 under the name “Cyclone”. Under their wings were placed shells, almost entirely consisting of a chemical reagent, analogous to silver iodide. Within a few weeks, Grushin and his comrade made 12 sorties, spending an average of six hours in the infected zone. There were no dangerous precipitations over Moscow, but some of them covered theBelarusian city of Gomel.

It is difficult to say how much this story affected the Chinese meteorologists in preparation for the Olympics and whether it affected at all. The effectiveness of cloud sowing is still in question, and it can not be said that without the intervention of Grushin and his colleague Gomel would not have encountered harmful precipitation. It is clear only one thing: the competition in Peking has never violated the rain, and only rare scattered clouds appear over the city.

Denying flaws

“Attempts by humanity to influence nature are an important method of using modern science and technology to prevent and fight disasters, and it has already received priority in our country,” said the then head of the Bureau of Meteorology, Qin Dahe. Cloud specialist at the China Academy of Meteorological Sciences Hu Zhijin also believed that weather modifications are necessary for the well-being of the country.

The beginning of the 2000s for China was characterized not only by the growing population level, which required water, but also weather problems. In the northern regions, 65% of precipitation fell from the world average, and the amount of water in some regions was only 40% of the world level.

“I do not feel like a god, I’m an ordinary worker,” said farmer Yu Yonggang in 2006. He is one of 37,000 volunteers who “caused” rain on the order of the government. Sitting behind a 37-millimeter artillery cannon, farmers fired special shells into the clouds, causing precipitation in arid regions. For the work, Yu received $ 125 per month.

Shells with chemicals on the wing of the aircraft. Photos Bloomberg

By that time, China was already considered the main researcher in the field of weather modification, overtaking former favorites – the USSR and the USA. According to government reports, from 1995 to 2003, China spent $ 266 million on weather modification in 23 regions. Of these, 50 million were allocated in 2003 to disperse chemicals with the help of 30 aircraft, 3,800 rockets and 6,900 artillery salvoes.

In Russia, the legacy of which once equaled China, most often weather modifications are used during the holidays. Sometimes in these operations, there are errors – in June 2008, a bag with “anti-cloud” cement, which was used to disperse clouds over the capital on the Day of Russia, fell on a dacha outside Moscow . For unknown reasons, the packaging did not crumble and fell, piercing a hole in the roof of the house about 80 by 50 centimeters in size.

In 2017, the meteorological authorities during the May and June holidays Moscow authorities have reserved 488 million rubles to disperse the clouds in case of bad weather. In April 2018 the mayor’s office promised to spend 400 million rubles to disperse the clouds on May 1 and 9, June 12 and on City Day (the first of September), if necessary.

Despite the promise, on June 12, on the Day of Russia , rain started in the afternoon in the capital , which lasted several hours.

Although more than 50 countries use weather modification in this or that format , in the United States, this is mainly done by private entrepreneurs. After a series of studies, the American authorities came to the conclusion that the effectiveness of cloud sowing to combat drought is not exactly proved, but this did not prevent the country from the first full-scale use of weather modifications in the war.

In the period of the biggest clashes with the troops of North Vietnam, from 1967 to 1972, the US annually spent up to three million dollars on the “modified weather weapon” in Operation Popeye. It was carried out during the rainy season from March to November and consisted in dispersing silver iodide to precipitate the area around the Ho Chi Minh trail. This is the route by which the enemy’s troops transferred supply to the front.

“To make mud, not war” (with such a joke phrase pilots of Operation Popeye were sent with such a joke . For five years, the soldiers carried out more than two thousand sorties, until the details of the program attracted journalists, which led to the curtailment of Popeye. Three years after the end of the war in Vietnam, in 1978, the international UN convention on the prohibition of the use of weather modifications for military purposes entered into force . Its author was the USSR.

Soldiers of the Vietnamese People’s Army on the Ho Chi Minh trail, 1969. Photos of PBS

Officially, the effectiveness of Popeye has not been proven – the Ho Chi Minh trail has withstood the weather onslaught, as it survived the mass bombings. Western experts believe that the biggest problem of seeding clouds is that the weather effect is difficult to fix.

Chinese meteorologists believe otherwise, arguing that due to stimulation they receive 10-20% more rainfall, but current technologies do not provide an opportunity to accurately determine whether human interference affects nature. “The question is always the same -” it would rain if you did not do anything, ” explains the climatologist and professor of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University Alan Robock.

Millions for good weather

In 2009, the Chinese authorities checked the work of the weather modification with snow. As a result, on November 2, Beijing residents met with a snowfall – the last time it fell out so early and abundantly in 1987. As stated meteorologists, thanks to 186 volleys of shells of silver iodide over the city fell to 16 cubic meters of snow more.

The experiment was associated with a severe drought in late October, which affected more than 800,000 hectares of agricultural land. But if the snowfall was just the way to the farmers, in Beijing, he led to the detention and cancellation of about 100 flights. Meteorologists are also experimenting with weather modifications, trying to find a way to effectively combat smog – one of the country’s major environmental problems – but so far this has not led to visible results.

In the summer of 2016, the Chinese government allocated nearly $ 30 million for weather modification to combat drought and natural disasters. This news appeared against the background of a major flood that affected more than 31 million people in 12 regions and led to the death of 237 people.

A resident of the city of Shenyang is sitting on a makeshift shelter from the flood. Holiday pictures AP

Less than a year later, in January 2017, the Communist Party approved a new weather modification plan, the cost of which was estimated at $ 168 million. According to the authors, it will increase the amount of precipitation on an area of ​​more than 960 thousand square kilometers – this is 10% of the country’s territory. Work on the program is expected to be completed in 2020.

In the spring of 2018, the South China Morning Post disclosed details of the development of the project. The authors will install special “burners” in the Tibetan Plateau, whose average height reaches 4877 meters. These devices will release reagents (most likely silver iodide) that will pick up local monsoons and carry them into the clouds, causing rain or snow.

“Burners” in the Tibetan Plateau. Photo of South China Morning Post

If successful, the project will additionally receive up to 10 cubic kilometers of precipitation – this is approximately 7% of the annual water consumption in China. It will go to the development of agriculture in arid regions. The main rivers of China, the Yangtze and the Yellow River flow into the Tibetan Plateau, which will become more abundant due to abundant rainfall. The project is being developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which is involved in the creation of a program for the construction of a Chinese space station on the Moon.

According to one of the employees of the project, who wished to remain anonymous, “burners” are able to allocate chemicals at a distance of up to five kilometers in height. Despite the almost airless space, the devices will be able to work without maintenance for several months or years. The system is planned to be controlled using data from 30 space satellites – theoretically, it is a full-fledged climate control program.

In the event that the effect of “burners” is not enough, meteorologists will use airplanes, drones and artillery for an additional result. However, this is an extreme case – the new devices are designed precisely as a cheap analog of the classic ways of modifying the weather. Each “burner” costs about eight thousand dollars – it’s ten times cheaper than using airplanes to sow clouds.

Favorite of the ambiguous race

Ideas with “burners” and weather modifications in general are not new, but of all 50 research countries only China spends millions of dollars on this area. This is not necessarily a waste – on a par with Russia and the US, China is among the five largest countries in the world, and the larger the territory, the more complex and expensive the study of weather modifications is.

In 2007, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Officer Bill Woodley explained that China had gone a long way in studying weather modifications, thanks not only to gigantic financing, but also to the determination to retain this area.

Compared with China, where investments in the region reach 100 million dollars a year, we do not know much. They train young scientists and pilots, they just go crazy about it. This is the epicenter of activity in the field of weather modification. They try very hard. In the United States, at best, the authorities are investing several thousand dollars in the region. For a country as large as ours, these investments are of little use.

Bill Woodley
employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the USA

The researcher of the Institute of the Tibetan Plateau at the Chinese Academy of Science Ma Weiqiang admits that the government’s current plans for weather modification are unique in their scope. However, he believes that it is impossible to fully predict the level of influence of “burners” on the climatic situation. Up to the point that they can reduce the amount of precipitation in other regions of the country.

The cloud sowing specialist Arlen Huggins agrees that the effectiveness of weather modifications has not been proven, and their use to combat drought is controversial. If the drought has already occurred, then it is impossible to remove precipitation from the clouds, because there are no precipitation during the drought and meteorologists have nothing to work with. Huggins points out that the best time for seeding comes during a normal or plentiful amount of clouds. Then from them you can extract additional water and store in tanks to take advantage of the drought.

China’s ambitions cause skepticism in many meteorological communities in Asia and in Western countries. However, it is unlikely that in the near future new research will be performed by another country, since any experiments and projects will require large funds. In the spring and summer of 2018, the first 500 test burners were installed in the Tibetan Plateau. According to the authors, they work well. “Sometimes the snow began to fall right after we turned on the” burner “. Almost like in a fairy tale, ” says the project participant, who wished to remain anonymous.

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