In China, the government controls just about everything, possibly including the weather.
After Beijing was hit with a record snowfall last week, an unidentified official from the Beijing Weather Modification Office said the government was responsible. The Office also took credit for an earlier snowfall this autumn. Zhang Qiang, director of the Weather Modification Office, said that the 16 million tons of snow that fell on the city Oct. 31 was induced by pumping 186 doses of silver iodide crystals into the clouds.
The claim is not quite as crazy as it sounds. According to a 2000 report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), at that time 23 countries were experimenting with cloud seeding, a method of attempting to increase or decrease the amount of precipitation using substances such as silver iodide, dry ice or salt.
The technique, which was first tried in 1946, is used in several U.S. states. The American Meteorological Society cites studies showing statistical evidence that precipitation from clouds over mountains can be increased by about 10 percent. Other studies estimate that winter precipitation can be increased by between 5 to 20 percent in inland areas and between 5 to 30 percent in coastal regions.
The other country that is most eager to play God is Russia. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has promised that, this year, not a flake will fall on Moscow. The mayor already uses chemical means to make sure it never rains on his parades.
However, scientists are still hesitant to make concrete claims about the effectiveness of cloud seeding. The WMO says “the impacts of operations in rainfall enhancement and hail suppression have still not been properly quantified and modification remains an area of active research.” The National Weather Service refers to cloud seeding as “an experimental process.”
The Chinese interest in weather modification centers primarily on alleviating the effects of a drought that has plagued the capital region for nearly a decade. But most Chinese are unlikely to be grateful for last week’s snowfall. Tens of thousands of people were stranded at airports and on roadways. A roof collapse, caused by the weight of accumulated snow, injured 28 and killed three children in a school in Hebei province. China’s news agencies reported these events but also claimed, “Beijing embraces heavy snow,” and released a series of photos showing the city covered in a blanket of white.
The Chinese government is probably overstating the success, if not the popularity, of its efforts. Even so, the Beijing storm serves as a reminder that when we tamper with the weather, we might be surprised at the outcome.