Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 16 December 2020


Ratland Weather Modification. Should We Worry?

Using rockets and pickup trucks, Chinese officials are seeding clouds and bringing the rain. But do they have other uses in mind?

You don’t need a weatherman ...
You don’t need a weatherman ... Photographer: China Photos/Getty

Last month, 16 “artificial rain enhancement rockets” were launched off the back of a pickup truck 300 miles south of Beijing. The operation, ordered up by the Juye County Meteorological Bureau in response to a local drought, was reportedly a success. Over the next 24 hours, the county received more than two inches of rain that, according to local officials, alleviated the drought, lowered the risk of forest fires and improved air quality.

It sounds like something out of a cartoon. But for decades, China has been home to one of the world's most advanced weather-modification programs. Generally, its goals have been modest: more rain in arid places, less field-destroying hail and sunny days for big national events. But that modesty is starting to give way. Earlier this month, China announced plans to expand its rainmaking capabilities to cover nearly 60% of the country by 2025. Details are sketchy, but fears are rising about the potential military uses of these capabilities, and their effects on an already changing climate. For China, and the world, these concerns need to be addressed soon.

Humans have dreamed of controlling the weather for millennia. But it wasn’t until 1946 that scientists at General Electric Co. discovered that dry ice can create precipitation when it interacts with clouds under certain conditions. By 1953, roughly 10% of the land area of the U.S. had been targeted for cloud seeding. Twelve years later, the government was spending millions of dollars on weather-modification research each year, and 15 other companies had started cloud-seeding operations in 23 states.

It wasn’t just about rainfall, however. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military weaponized cloud seeding to inhibit enemy troop movements and reduce the effectiveness of anti-aircraft attacks, among other things. These uses so alarmed policy makers that they began seeking an international agreement to end “environmental warfare.” In 1978, the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification went into force.

Although China ratified the treaty in 2005, its interest in controlling the weather and the environment didn’t wane. Meteorological calamities such as hail and flooding account for more than 70% of the country's annual disaster-related damage. Because of that ongoing toll, the government has staked its legitimacy in part on how well it responds to such incidents. In recent decades, as the country has grown wealthier, Earth-altering projects such as the Three Gorges Dam have become a favored solution.

Weather modification, by comparison, is relatively inexpensive. In the 1980s, the government began making substantial investments in cloud physics and related fields. Advances in everything from satellites to rocketry boosted the effort, even though definitive scientific proof for the effectiveness of cloud seeding emerged only in 2018 (and in Idaho, not China). Nonetheless, the government claimed a great success in 2008, when Beijing launched 1,110 allegedly rain-suppressing rockets to ensure that the Olympic opening ceremonies were dry (they were, although scientists have questioned whether the rockets had much to do with it). By 2015, there were rainmaking and hail-suppression programs in 30 Chinese provinces, employing some 35,000 people.

Success has bred greater ambitions. In 2017, China’s top economic policy-making body showered $175 million on a weather-modification system designed to bring more precipitation to a region that makes up about 10% of the country’s territory (among the items purchased: 897 rocket launchers). A year later, Chinese aerospace and defense companies were reportedly building thousands of fuel-burning chambers intended to produce vast amounts of precipitation along the Alaska-sized Tibetan plateau. This month’s announcement was a predictable progression — albeit one that has generated significant skepticism among scientists.

But as the U.S. learned decades ago, even modest success at weather modification is sufficient to worry rivals and neighbors. And other Asian countries are increasingly concerned that China’s program could negatively affect the monsoons and regular rains that have fed their people for millennia. Although the science behind such schemes is still debatable, this isn’t an idle worry. In a region where tensions are already rising over access to water, weather modification will at best appear like diplomatic pressure; at worst, it looks like a weapon.

For now, the only international agreement that comes close to addressing such concerns is the convention on environmental modification. But that treaty only applies to “hostile” modifications, not the “peaceful” ones that China and other countries will surely claim for themselves if challenged. One way around this problem is to make weather modification a part of the climate-change discussion. Insofar as the technology is being used to counterbalance the negative effects of global warming, it already is. But future talks on the matter should discourage unilateral approaches. Instead, they should prioritize cooperative uses of weather modification, including data sharing, among all countries.

Convincing China and others to share their technology and intentions won’t be easy. But unless the world gets a handle on this looming problem, it could face some dark clouds ahead. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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