Friday, November 13, 2009

Seeding the Clouds

When we woke up to a veritable snow storm on our last day in Beijing, having enjoyed pleasant 70-degree weather just the day before, I was baffled. I later learned that the clouds had been "seeded" earlier in the week, which supposedly induces rainfall. I didn't know what that meant. In fact, I hadn't even heard of this practice until it backfired on the first of this month, spoiling our last day of vacation, and causing an international stir by creating one of the earliest Beijing snowfalls on record. But it turns out that cloud seeding is nothing new, and when it comes to the controversial practice (to say the least!) of messing with the weather patterns, China is leading the way.

In one 2006 report, the Chinese government spends about $50 million (USD) a year in their attempts to control the weather. (Current estimates are as high as $90 million!) It is estimated that China sends cloud-seeding aircraft on roughly 700 missions per year, loaded with a comparable number of rockets and artillery shells that are filled with chemicals such as silver iodide and mixed with dry ice. These rockets are then shot into the atmosphere in hopes that the chemical particulates released will aid in the formation of water vapor, which will then fall to the Earth as rain.

Although China has had a moderate amount of success with this practice, bringing much needed rain to drought-stricken areas and helping to extinguish raging forest fires in remote regions of the country, the path that they are heading down is a slippery slope indeed. Rumor has it that they made attempts to ensure sunny, favorable weather for the Summer Olympics, which were held in Beijing just last summer, by using this practice to coax rainfall out of any potentially moisture-rich clouds headed toward Beijing, inducing the rain to fall prematurely so as not to ruin their moments in the spotlight. I couldn't find any proof of whether this worked, though, or if it's even true. The skies were sunny, sure, but Beijing has been suffering from a nearly decade-long drought, so the scientists' claims may be more arrogant than they are accurate.

So arrogant, in fact, that they've done it again; created an unseasonal snowstorm that has, according to an article published today, already killed 40. In China's defense, they're not the only ones trying to outsmart Mother Nature; weather modification experiments have been going on in Europe, Asia, and even the U.S. for more than 50 years. Proponents of this practice argue that the main chemical components of the rockets-- silver iodide (which is found in iodized table salt) and carbon dioxide (found in the atmosphere)-- are harmless. Everything has a toxicity level, though-- even water! And who's to say what the long-term effects may be from prolonged exposure to these chemical rains?

The Chinese, however, are unapologetic in their cloud-seeding efforts. It seems to me that they plan to advance their civilization as rapidly as possible, and will only deal with the consequences when they (inevitably) arise. I'm all for scientific breakthroughs and development, but there's a fine line between weather modification and playing God; if it's not done responsibly, they'll have to answer to Mother Nature in the end, and she's quite a force to be reckoned with.

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