China plans a rapid expansion of its weather modification program to cover an area more than one and a half times the size of India, which is likely to raise concerns among the country’s neighbors.
The decision, announced by the cabinet on Wednesday evening, would boost the world’s largest cloud seeding operation, which already employs around 35,000 people, fivefold.
For six decades, the communist nation has deployed military aircraft and anti-aircraft guns to coat the clouds with silver iodide or liquid nitrogen to thicken the water droplets to the point where they fall as snow or rain. The technology has mainly been used locally to alleviate droughts or clear skies ahead of major events, such as the 2008 Olympics or the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China last October.
But the proposed enlargement is on a scale that could affect regional weather patterns. The cabinet said it wants to expand the artificial rain and snow program to cover at least 2.1 million square miles (5.5 million square kilometers) of land by 2025. The long-term plan calls for that by 2035, the country’s weather modification capabilities would reach an “advanced” level and focus on revitalizing rural areas, restoring ecosystems and reducing losses from natural disasters.
It follows rapid capacity building in recent years. A 2017 plan called for $168 million (1.15 billion yuan) for four new aircraft, eight upgraded craft, 897 rocket launchers and 1,856 digital control devices to cover 370,000 miles (960,000 km2), or about 10% of Chinese territory.
Part of that is a new weather modification system in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Asia’s largest freshwater reserve. Chinese scientists are working on the ambitious Tianhe (“heavenly river”) plan to divert water vapor north from the Yangtze River basin to the Yellow River basin, where it would become precipitation.
They say they have found potential channels near the edge of the troposphere that could transport 5 billion cubic meters of water per year. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is said to have built hundreds of chambers in the mountainous region – known as Asia’s water tower – to introduce large amounts of silver iodide into the atmosphere.
This attempt to hydro-engineer the sky could alleviate shortages in China’s dry north, but could exacerbate problems in Southeast Asia and India if it affects the flow of the Mekong, Salween or Brahmaputra rivers – which have all their sources on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Even before the latest announcement, Indian websites speculated that China is weaponizing the weather and may already be disrupting rainfall patterns. There is little credible evidence, but China would not be alone in trying to modify the weather for strategic purposes.
American journalist Seymour Hersh revealed in 1972 that the United States attempted to manipulate seasonal rains during the Vietnam War. Operation Popeye, as it was called, aimed to flood the communist supply route along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The American company General Electric carried out the first experiments in cloud seeding in 1946. The technology was later adopted and improved by the Soviet Union, then fervently applied by China during the Great Leap Forward, when Mao Zedong said that “artificial rain is very important. I hope meteorological experts will do their best to make it work.
But its use has been peaceful and domestic. In the north, it is coordinated by Beijing’s weather modification office, which claims to have increased rainfall in the capital by more than 10%. In 2009, he was credited with a snowfall that helped relieve a prolonged drought. Prior to the 2008 Olympics, more than 1,000 silver iodide shells were fired into the sky for eight hours to prevent rain from disrupting the opening ceremony. The technology was also reportedly deployed to clear smog in time for the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting. Locals still jokingly refer to the color of the clear sky as “Apec blue”.
But there are concerns about how far the communist government is willing to go to tamper with the material. In the 1970s, Chinese generals proposed using nuclear weapons to blow up a channel through the Himalayas so that hot, humid air from the Indian subcontinent could be diverted to green the central and southern deserts. northern China. The country is also at the heart of the world’s largest water diversion project, which aims to achieve a similar goal. However, many scientists, even in China, doubt the effectiveness of cloud seeding, especially at large scales.
In China, weather modification is institutionalized and widely deployed, and current narratives around the legitimacy of intervening in the local climate may justify interventions such as solar radiation management.
Recent scientific papers indicate that the artificial rain program takes these ideas to a new technological and political level. Shiuh-Shen Chien and colleagues from National Taiwan University said China’s cloud water governance presents a new human weather ideology of “taming the weather”. Bettina Bluemling of the University of Queensland and others argue that this scale of intervention could set a precedent for Beijing to take the first steps in climate geoengineering.