This summer, China set aside $30 million for a controversial project that involves firing bullets filled with salt and minerals into the sky.
Their mission? Make it rain.
The project is part of a larger campaign of so-called weather modification techniques that the country has been using since at least 2008, when they claim to have cleared skies for the Beijing Olympics by forcing rain to come early.
China is far from the only country trying to bring (or stop) the rain. According to the World Meteorological Organization, at least 52 countries, including the United States, currently have weather modification programs, up 10 countries from five years ago.
It all started in the 1940s, when a pair of General Electric Co. scientists were experimenting with using supercooled clouds to stimulate ice crystal growth while hiking on Mount Washington. The mountain, located in New Hampshire, is often called the “stormiest mountain in the world” and is considered a prime location for cold weather testing. After a series of experiments there and in New York, the two researchers managed to make it rain using silver iodide bullets. They obtained a patent for their technique, called cloud-seeding, in 1948.
A few decades later, the US military introduced cloud seeding to the battlefield. Between 1967 and 1972, during the Vietnam War, he spent about $3 million each year on weather modification campaigns designed to extend the monsoon season and create muddy, harsh conditions for enemy combatants. One campaign involved an attempt to flood the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main route enemy fighters used to deliver their supplies.
Here is an excerpt from a Federation of American Scientists (FAS) document detailing the campaign:
The program was also known as Operation Popeye, Operation Intermediate, and Operation Countryman. Whenever too many people learned the name, the military changed it. Whether or not the program worked is still a matter of debate. According to the FAS, its “effects were minimal”.
Scientists say this is one of the biggest problems with cloud seeding programs: it’s hard to tell if they have any effect. Even with today’s improved techniques, it can be difficult to distinguish weather that may have already occurred from weather that seeding may have caused.
“The question is always, if you didn’t, would it have rained anyway?” Alan Robock, a distinguished professor of geophysics in Rutgers University’s Department of Environmental Science, told Business Insider.
In 2010, the American Meteorological Society issued a statement on cloud seeding stating that although the science of weather modification has improved dramatically over the past five decades, “there are still limits to certainty with which desired changes in cloud behavior can be brought about using current cloud seeding techniques.”
In other words, we need more research.
Despite ongoing disputes about how well it works, people around the world are still using weather modification to try to cope with the large-scale changes in temperature and precipitation caused by climate change.
In drought-stricken California and several Midwestern states, cloud seeding projects are being used in an attempt to increase the production of water, which is desperately needed both as drinking water and for irrigate crops. And while these projects “may not do it significantly…even a 10% increase in precipitation or snowfall may be worth it,” said Bart Geerts, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University. of Wyoming, to Business Insider.
“We are becoming increasingly aware of the constraints that arid environments have on resources. Water is the biggest constraint in the western United States and parts of China,” Geerts said.
Countries around the world are experiencing a large number of these “extreme weather events”, which can take the form of periods of intense drought or severe storms and floods. At the same time, there is a slight resurgence in the use of weather modification techniques, which experts say countries could use to try to shield vulnerable areas from the brunt of natural disasters.
China’s finance ministry aims to use the technology to create more than 60 billion additional cubic meters of rain each year by 2020, Reuters reported recently. Last year, the drought-stricken Indian state of Maharashtra spent $4.5 million on cloud seeding.
Current projects are not limited to preparing for natural disasters or climate change, of course. Last May, the Russian government allocated $1.3 million for a project designed to stop the rain falling on International Workers’ Day.
Although some government-run projects exist, the most popular type of project involves coordination between the government and a private company. The largest such company, Weather Modification Incorporated, has a global presence and prominently claims that its technology works.
“Weather Modification Inc. is at the forefront of scientific technology to maximize water availability around the world,” it states on its website. “The application of scientific concepts and extensive scientific experimentation have proven that cloud seeding increases the amount of precipitation.”
One of their recent projects, a pilot program in Wyoming, was to see if they could use cloud seeding to boost the state’s water supply. The National Science Foundation (NSF) also helped fund the project, though it hasn’t had a formal weather modification program since the 1970s, when federal agencies essentially froze funding for seeding projects. clouds.
Geerts, who worked on the program at his university, says similar projects have been underway for decades. But “more recently there has been more interest, especially during dry spells,” Geerts said.
How cloud seeding is supposed to work
All air contains moisture. Even in hot and dry regions, water remains suspended in the sky. Before it rains, water droplets in the air condense and cool on tiny particles (such as dust) in the atmosphere, forming clouds. Once they get big and heavy enough, they fall off and melt along the way. This is what we call rain.
Cloud seeding works on the same idea: by injecting chemicals into the clouds to lower their temperature and give them more material to condense on, this hopefully speeds up the process, making rain earlier than usual.
Experts agree that in theory, cloud seeding makes sense. But in practice, “I think the verdict is still in,” Geerts said.
Nonetheless, people are still striving to improve weather modification technology, hoping that one day it might help with everything from inducing rain to preventing hailstorms. In the meantime, the researchers say we are seeing the impacts of what some call “unintended” climate change across the world with the release of fossil fuels into the atmosphere.
“Whatever we do locally, whether it’s industrial processes or burning biofuels, it has a global impact. And ultimately some of that may be more important than the intentional things that I’m involved in,” Geerts said.