How China learned to fix the weather
Beijing snowfall was created by cloud-seeding to help solve water shortages
When heavy snow blanketed Beijing over the weekend, it was the earliest it had fallen on the Chinese capital since 1987. But the snowfall was not a meteorological anomaly, it was a purposeful act by the increasingly influential Beijing Weather Modification Office, part of a national network which employs 37,000 people across China to use cloud-seeding technology to adapt the country's climate.
With northern China still struggling from water shortages after a hot, dry summer, local officials organised workers to fire rockets carrying 186 doses of silver iodide into the sky over the course of Saturday night and Sunday morning. This caused the heavy clouds which had been covering Beijing to precipitate, dropping approximately 16m cubic metres of snow on areas affected by the drought, and causing temperatures to plummet under zero.
Zhang Qiang, the deputy director of the weather modification office, told the Guardian: "In terms of the influence on crops, since the temperature will get warmer again soon it causes less harm than benefit to farming. Water melted from snow just meets the demands of winter irrigation in agriculture."
With their vast workforce, aeroplanes and hundreds of lasers, the Chinese use weather modification more widely and publicly than any other country in the world.
With an annual budget of over $63m, they mainly intervene to make it rain after droughts or to prevent hailstorms, and occasionally diversify into putting out fires or improving conditions after damaging dust storms. In total, state statistics indicate that nationwide weather modification programmes caused fully 7.4 trillion cubic feet, or more than 200 squared kilometers, of rain to fall between 1995 and 2003.
The Chinese also use this technology to ensure that showpiece occasions go ahead without a hitch. In 1997 they provided snow on New Year's Day, and last summer, as the world's attention focused on Beijing, more than 1,100 rockets were fired into the atmosphere to stop a band of showers from menacing the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
Likewise, the Chinese used the technology to make sure that the weather was immaculate earlier this autumn when they celebrated the 60th anniversary of Mao coming to power in 1949.
The principles of cloud-seeding were discovered in the US just after World War II, and one of the first scientists involved was Dr Bernard Vonnegut, brother of the novelist Kurt.
The US military used it for Operation Popeye, a plan to extend the monsoon season over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos during the Vietnam conflict, under the slogan of 'make mud, not war'.
The Russian military seeded clouds to stop radioactive material reaching Moscow after the Chernobyl disaster. And there is a conspiracy theory that the US government used such methods to make it rain for the duration of Woodstock. ·
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