Weather Engineering in China

Equally, though, the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions estimates that 1.5 million of Beijing's natives will have been displaced from their homes by government edict when the Olympics finally begins. This preemptory modernization is of a piece with China's scale, its 1.32 billion population, and the authoritarian control exerted by its Communist central government, which nowadays is dominated by technocrats and engineers who favor mega-projects like the world's largest dam (the Three Gorges dam over the Yangtze River), its highest railway (the Qinghai-Tibet line), and even its biggest Ferris wheel (in Beijing, opening in 2009). Unsurprisingly, therefore, China's national weather-engineering program is also the world's largest, with approximately 1,500 weather modification professionals directing 30 aircraft and their crews, as well as 37,000 part-time workers--mostly peasant farmers--who are on call to blast away at clouds with 7,113 anti-aircraft guns and 4,991 rocket launchers.

The Chinese began experimental weather engineering in 1958 to irrigate the country's north, where average yearly rainfall compares with that during the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and sudden windstorms blasting down from the Gobi desert have made drought and famine constant possibilities. Today, the People's Republic budgets $60 to $90 million annually for its national Weather Modification Office. As for the return on this investment, the state-run news agency Xinhua claims that between 1999 and 2007, the office rendered 470,000 square kilometers of land hail-free and created more than 250 billion tons of rain--an amount sufficient to fill the Yellow River, China's second largest, four times over. Furthermore, while Qian's weather engineers in Beijing have been testing their capabilities for the past two years, the Chinese say that during the past five years, similar efforts have already helped produce good weather at national events like the World Expo in Yunnan, the Asian Games in Shanghai, and the Giant Panda Festival in Sichuan.

Although they possess the world's largest weather modification program, the Chinese point to the Russians as being the most advanced. In 1986, Russian scientists deployed cloud-seeding measures to prevent radioactive rain from Chernobyl from reaching Moscow, and in 2000 they cleared clouds before an anniversary ceremony commemorating the end of World War II; China's then president, Jiang Zemin, witnessed the results firsthand and pushed to adopt the same approach back home. As for the historical credit for starting the whole weather-engineering ball rolling back in 1946, that belongs to employees of General Electric in Schenectady, NY--most notably, scientist Bernard Vonnegut (brother of the late novelist Kurt), who worked out silver iodide's potential to provide crystals around which cloud moisture would condense. During the 1960s and '70s, the United States invested millions of federal dollars in experiments like Stormfury (aimed at hurricane control), Skywater (aimed at snow- and rainfall increase), and Skyfire (aimed at lightning suppression). Simultaneously, the U.S. military tried to use weather modification as a weapon in Project Popeye, during the Vietnam War, by rain-making over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in an effort to close it.

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