Graeme Wood

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The Battle for the Skies

Judging by James Fallows’s latest photos, Beijing’s skies are the color of rice water, and they aren’t trending in the direction of clarity. The public pronouncements of the weather-bureau spokesmen, once bold and Promethean, are now humbler: “The Beijing Olympic weather center will issue monitoring and weather warning and will update the weather information on a rolling basis,” said Wang Jiangjie, who just last January boasted of having a team of weather modifiers to clean up the skies for the Games. Her colleagues allude vaguely to techniques that are supposedly still up the Chinese meteorological sleeve, but even they note that these techniques are “only on the stage of experimentation.”

Weather modification sounds like a newfangled science, and when spoken of as an object of secret Chinese plots, it has strong associations with mad science and environmental recklessness. But it’s an old field, and one in which the Chinese are no madder or pseudoscientific than the West. To this day, European and U.S. farmers shoot cannons — “canons de grele” — at the sky and make loud noises to disrupt the formation of crop-destroying hail. (The hail falls anyway.) Respectable scientists say seeding can increase precipitation by a small fraction, but only when the skies are already gravid with rain. A clear blue sky will not rain just because of seeding. The only other common type of intentional weather modification is fog reduction, which is in use in places like Thule Air Base, a U.S. Air Force outpost in Greenland. However, there are plenty of ways we accidentally modify the weather. For instance, Israeli scientists have studied the effect of air pollution — specifically, whether filth in the sky retains moisture and keeps it from falling to the ground as rain. Chinese scientists, take note.

One U.S. weather modifier told me he had heard of Chinese weather-modification programs that had trained tens of thousands of scientists — not to improve weather for the Olympics, but to produce rain to relieve drought-plagued farmers. The American asked one Chinese scientist whether his country’s programs worked. The Chinese scientist paused. “The peasants think they do,” he said, and left it at that. The Chinese government has, in the past, profited from projecting an image of omnipotence, of being able to provide its citizens goods as basic as rain, in exchange for trust in the leadership. Now, after years of increasing unrest among ordinary people in China, the aura of omnicompetence projected by the government might be counterproductive. More and more riots have occurred in China’s smaller cities during the past few years. If they can fix the rain, why can’t they fix everything else?

Chances are, the Chinese are approximately where the rest of the world is in their progress toward changing the weather — that is, not yet able to do much. But they are in a much more precarious spot politically, with a populace that grumbles increasingly about its neglect. One of the effects of a smoothly run Olympics will be glory for China on the world stage. But another effect will be an increased call for the government to turn its energies to its own people and exercise the same awesome powers for its domestic audience as it has for the benefit of foreign visitors. If the weather bureau really is able to tinker with rain clouds as effectively as some think, now might be a good time to reconsider whether it really wants to show its powers: if they are unveiled now, or even if they give off only the illusion of effectiveness, Chinese peasants will demand that they be unveiled many times again in the future.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

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