Today China’s rulers are controlling the rain. It does that by “cloud-seeding,” the colloquial term for rocket-launching chemicals into clouds, accelerating the creation of ice crystals that eventually become rain (China uses military aircraft too). This meteorological enema isn’t just handy for combating the country’s increasingly severe droughts and, supposedly, preventing hail. Local governments use “weather modification” to clear away lingering billows of air pollution.
With its horrendous air pollution and acute water shortage, China is a natural contender to be the world’s leading cloud-seeder. But another reason is that few countries share its enthusiasm for the technique. For one, its effectiveness has never been well established. Put simply, it’s hard to tell if those 55 billion tons of artificial rain would have fallen anyway.
If the technique does work, that could actually cause other problems. Some say prematurely inducing rain prevents it from falling elsewhere. Also, cloud-seeding probably makes hail expand, not shrink, and pollution already seeds clouds automatically.
If cloud-seeding is possibly futile and destructive, why is China ramping up? Aside from environmental concerns, there are lucrative reasons to cloud-seed. The CMA has plans to seed clouds for private enterprises like farms or hydropower stations, Zheng Guoguang, the head of the CMA, told the China Daily in 2012. A Beijing meteorologist described China’s motivations to Vanity Fair at a weather-modification banquet in 2008 as follows: “People believe what they will, and governments must be seen to take action.”
Cloud seeding to increase snowfall is done when temperatures within the clouds are between 19°F and -4°F (between -7°C and -20°C). This is the range at which silver iodide does its best work, as demonstrated by decades of research. Introduction of a substance such as silver iodide, which has a crystalline structure similar to that of ice, will induce freezing nucleation.
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