Weather Modding: Taming the Skies

Bad Weather Can Ruin Our Best Moments. Can We Control the Capricious Weather? Or Should We Adjust Our Own Calendar? 

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ON 8 JULY, 2008, with over 15,000 performers and a vast quantity of fireworks, the stage was set for a spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Nonetheless, on top of overseeing the arrangements on the ground, the authorities were doomed to handle the threatening skies as well. With the whole world tuned in to the event, the portentous clouds lurking over the firmament could easily spoil the show. Contrary to prevalent apprehensions, the rain was averted and the ceremony went fabulously well.

Why did it not rain? Perhaps nature changed its mind. However, the common perception is that the Chinese tamed the weather; they fired 1,100 chemical rockets into the sky, intercepting the uninvited clouds and causing them to rain before they reached the capital city. It might seem like a science fiction, but humans have claimed to influence weather for many decades.

Can we really mod the weather according to our wishes? If yes, should we do it? Can we use this technology to possibly reverse climate change due to global warming? Are there any unforeseen hazards? An answer to these questions requires an understanding of the increasingly fickle state called weather.

The Capricious Weather

As we step out of house every morning, we usually look towards the sky and remark one of the few familiar atmospheric words: sunny, cloudy, rainy, foggy and occasionally snowy. These banal expressions describe our weather. Weather is the state of atmosphere at any particular point in time. As a matter of fact, it takes a number of other scientific terms to define weather including temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure and few others.

Ordinary mortals observe weather in terms of the impact it might have on their lives. In most of the places weather can change from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, week-to-week. If we take the average of weather over time and space, it is called climate. While weather is a short-term atmospheric state, a climate is the weather pattern of a certain region over longer periods. For easy reference, climate is what you expect such as hot summer and weather is what you get, a thunderstorm, for example.

Because our earth is round and not flat, the sun’s rays do not fall evenly upon land and oceans. The solar radiation falls directly over equator so countries located near the equator have warmer climates. On the other hand, the polar regions are at such an angle that Sun’s rays fall skewed, causing colder temperatures. These differences in temperatures between the poles and the equator create convective currents of air and water that distribute heat energy of the Sun across the planet, originating various weather patterns or climates.

Weather plays a critical role in our daily lives. Whether they are Olympic events or our day-to-day activities, human civilization remains at the mercy of tricky swings of weather. Our biggest cities and most impressive engineering projects could be wiped out in a matter of hours by extreme storm, often resulting in irretrievable financial and irreversible human losses.

The significance of weather in human lives makes it a subject of concern, and accentuates the human desire for harnessing this natural force. Nonetheless, weather is a complex atmospheric system which at times can be impulsively chaotic. There are numerous parameters that may influence the final outcome; some of these parameters were unknown to scientists until quite recently.

In mid-October 1987, a mighty storm struck the United Kingdom causing massive devastation across the country. This turmoil was in contrast to the available weather forecast. Since then the forecasters avoid a single definitive forecast; with the aid of computer models, they can start with multiple subtly different variants formulating various forecasts. Consequently, they are able to provide fairly closer, rather than strictly exact, information about imminent weather. For instance they can reliably predict the chances of rain on a certain day.

Humans have already done a fairly reasonable job at understanding and predicting weather. With the aid of supercomputers, contemporary meteorologists have developed complex models to forecast weather with a reasonable accuracy. However, because of the chaotic nature of the weather, any attempt to predict weather more than five days would be fairly doubtful, while more than ten days will be actually futile.

Even with the state of the art technology at the aid of weather specialists, our weather forecasts are subject to error. Moreover, media is often perpetuating hysterical news about likely hurricanes or splashing exaggerated headlines about hot summer waves.

Weather forecasts help us to prepare better and to adjust our schedules accordingly. However, humans of the third millennium are interested in moving a step further: instead of reading weather forecast on the internet and revise their agendas accordingly, they want to adjust weather according to their plan. Before judging on the wisdom of messing up with powerful natural cycles, let us first peruse how far we have gone in this domain hitherto.

Cloud Seeding and Beyond

The genesis of anthropogenic weather modification goes back to 1940s when a pair of scientists from General Electric Co. was hiking Mount Washington— probably the stormiest mountain on earth. Taking advantage from the freezing chill of the hike, the curious duo experimented with super-cooled clouds to stimulate the growth of ice crystals. Subsequent experiments in New York enabled the two researchers to induce the first snowstorm in a laboratory. In 1948, they got a patent for this technique, now called cloud seeding.

As apparent from the name, cloud seeding involves seeding or shooting of certain substances on clouds to make it rain. For this purpose, microscopic particles of silver dioxide are shot into clouds using either land based generators or aircrafts. Silver iodide is known to concentrate moisture thus clearing the way for an artificial rain and snow.

The invention of cloud seeding had exposed the mysteries of rain and snow that had baffled earlier scientists. A few decades later, the US military brought the technique of cloud seeding to the battlefield. During the Vietnam War (1967-1972), $3 million per annum were expended on weather modifications designed to attract monsoon downpours and to block the enemy supply routes with unpassable mud. This operation was nick-named as Operation Popeye.

Apart from war, the United States has also deployed weather modding for peaceful purposes. Quite recently, cloud seeding projects are being used to increase water production in draught-stricken California, where there is a dire need for drinking water and for crops irrigation.

Likewise, impeding rain to safeguard Beijing Olympics was not the first Chinese attempt at cloud seeding. In fact, Chinese research into weather control dates back to as early as 1958. Today the Chinese government runs a separate Weather Modification Department entrusted with the discrete goal of controlling weather conditions. Every year, the department launches thousands of specially designed rockets and artillery shells into the air with the aim of manipulating weather in their favor.

China has invested heavily in cloud seeding technology, and rightly so. With a population approaching 1.4 billion, China requires vast amounts of water. Effective cloud seeding can produce rains for farmers, fight draughts, and clear away the obnoxious smog so ubiquitous in numerous Chinese metropolises. The Chinese ambitions are high and the Ministry of Finance aims to create more than 60 billion cubic meters of additional rain every year by 2020.

Following the footsteps of China and the United States, countries like Russia and India have also started investing in weather modification. In 2015, the draught-stricken Indian state of Maharashtra spent $4.5 million on cloud seeding. A year later, the Russian government allocated $1.3 million to stop rainfall on International Workers’ Day.

In addition to governmental agencies, private companies have also shown interest in weather modification technology. The largest such company is Weather Modification Inc. , a US based enterprise that offers services ranging from weather forecasting to practical cloud seeding. Operating worldwide, this company claims that its technology is fairly reliable.

Though cloud seeding has been the major weather modification technique, a number of alternative methods have been proposed. Some of them suggest using lasers to suck lightning out of thunderstorms while others involve oil slicks to calm down ocean’s surface presumably abating hurricanes. There are also plans to use seeding to dump nitrogen into the sea, in an attempt to weaken hurricanes.

Some experts agree that cloud seeding could make sense, at least in theory. However, methods being tried need extensive research before graduating to viable weather modification technologies. Meanwhile, an extensive debate on the pros and cons of cloud seeding and other weather modification techniques is ongoing.

A Raging Debate

It has become a tradition in Beijing to seed the clouds with bullets of silver iodide on special occasions such as the National day. But is it the cloud seeding that averts rain or could it be a heavenly afterthought. While Chinese are exceptionally optimistic over the efficacy of their cannon shots on the clouds, opinion in other parts of the world is clearly divided.

In 2003, the United States National Academy of Sciences declared that thirty years of studies had failed to provide any conclusive evidence that weather modification actually works. On the contrary, the American Meteorological Society opines that some studies on cloud seeding show a 10 percent increase in rain volume.

There are various schools of thought about weather modification technology. One group — many of them respectable scientists and engineers — believe that humans have the potential to engineer and control the atmosphere. They are certain that technologies like cloud seeding can bring life to deserts, control rainfall, and even manipulate weather to counter the perils of global warming.

An alternative viewpoint is that speaking of grand plans to modify global weather to our favor is great to speak in science fiction but implementing such plans in real world would be fraught with incredible dangers. According to this ideology, we still lack a comprehensive understanding of complex weather systems. While we can predict rain with reasonable accuracy, we still do not know where the showers will fall.

The global weather is a single unified system. Playing with one part might result in favorable outcomes in one region; however, probabilities of unpredictable circumstances in another part of the system cannot be negated. Climatic prosperity of one nation could mean a complete disaster for a neighboring country. What if the rain induced by one country showers in a neighboring land; who owns that water? Such questions might seem stupid but have the potential to flare up heated arguments between states.

The United States has already experimented with cloud seeding for impairing the enemy in Vietnam. Likewise, there could be new forms of remote battles called Climate Wars. The odds of a terrorist organization getting hold of a country’s climate control program are also conceivable.

Cloud seeding technology is expensive and can only be commercialized until its effectiveness is decisively proven. While the proponents of the technology claim that cloud seeding could help abate air pollution, an alternative view is that the root causes of air pollution should be nipped rather than expending millions of dollars on eradicating its symptoms.

While suppressing rain could save your day on an important event such as an Olympic ceremony, it could mean loss of crops to farmers. In addition, despite reassurances from the cloud seeding companies, concerns associated with the toxicity of silver iodide remain alive for humans, livestock and fish in aquatic habitats.

Let Us Adjust Our Calendar

Did cloud seeding abate rainfall during Beijing Olympics? Frankly, we do not know. And we will never know. The efficacy of weather modification technologies is still dubious. Even if we have effective ways to influence climate, we are not fully familiar with the intricacies of the global weather systems. Thus messing up with a powerful natural force will be worse than a foolhardy.

Rather than trying to impose your own plans, let us read today’s weather forecast, and adjust our calendar.

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