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Beijing Shot Rain From Sky To Keep Opening Ceremony Dry

09/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

china beijing olympics opening ceremony rainmaking rain
cloudseeding cloud seeding weather modification

What other government in the world, for what other reason, would be
able to "guarantee"
the weather
? One of the biggest feats of China's spectacular
opening ceremony on Friday wasn't inside the stadium. As those of us
inside the Bird's Nest feared rain -- and secretly, because of the
heavy heat and humidity, prayed for it -- the city's meteorological
bureau peppered approaching clouds with over 1000 href="http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/04/beijing_forced_rain.php">silver-iodide
rockets. That triggered intense showers outside the city and
preempted a rainfall on China's parade.

It was one of the more fitting, if unacknowledged, touches to the
super-sized ceremony, which after all was about China's human daring
and ingenuity.

Ever since Mao Zedong, who declared that "man must defeat the
heavens," the country has used cloud-seeding mostly to alleviate
drought. Though the practice is not as uncommon as it seems -- NASA
plays with the technique to provide good weather for shuttle launches
and Los
Angeles
and href="http://pruned.blogspot.com/2006/01/meteorological-alchemy.html">Wyoming
have relaunched their own programs. But Friday marked what was
perhaps the the world's most intense (and unique) rainmaking mission,
one which scientists had in their sights for years. Opening ceremony
director Zhang Yimou had warned that rain would be the biggest threat
to China's biggest ever showcase. It simply was not going to be
allowed to fall.

While the city was setting off 33,866 fireworks, it also "fired a
total of 1,104 rain dispersal rockets from 21 sites in the city
between 4 pm and 11:39 pm on Friday, which prevented a rain belt from
moving toward the stadium," bureau chief Guo Hu said, according to href="http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/olympics/2008-08/09/content_6919493.htm">China
Daily.

Just as the rockets were slamming the clouds, the opening ceremony
reached a middle section, "Nature." At the center of the stadium
children were painting a landscape and singing a song:

The air is warming
The ice cap is melting
Land becomes smaller
Birds are vanishing

We plant trees
We sow seeds
The earth turns green
The sky is blue indeed...

If the lyrics describe a miraculous progression from ecological
devastation to renewal, the last line sounds a bit like the mantra of
a religious meeting or a hypnotist's session. That night, the sky
wasn't blue, and it was heavy with humidity and pollution, but it
wasn't raining. To make this propaganda at least more accurate and
appropriate, perhaps "We sow seeds" might have been changed to "We
seed clouds."

Even before it won its Olympic bid in 2001, China poured millions of
RMB into its rainmaking project, hoping to trigger smog-clearing
showers, provide water to dry land and, for the opening ceremony, to
keep storm clouds at bay. Though there are widespread doubts about how
effective cloud-seeding is -- even some officials have admitted their
techniques remain un-proven -- Beijing says it is able to control some
of the weather some of the time. And while the city is known for heavy
summer rain, in the past two years you could sometimes tell when a
sudden downpour was coming based on the visiting schedule of IOC
officials.

Besides concerns about the chemicals used ( href="http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-08/10/content_9112301.htm">safe,
officials insist), and the href="http://smokehard.com/2008/cloud-seeding/">occasional cement bag
falling from a seeding plane, there are larger questions about how
cloud-seeding can negatively effect weather patterns, and how it
serves to "wash away not just the dirt, but people's memory" of the
dirt, as Wen Bo href="http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/06/beijin_fake_rain.php">told
me in 2006.

Given the city's and the country's environmental issues, techniques
like forced rain, drastic car bans, factory shutdowns and general href="http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/08/ioc_beijing_obscure_pollution.php">sugar
coating only obscure the bigger problems, creating apathy among
officials and citizens and drawing money away from sustainable
projects, like improving irrigation or cleaning up factories.

I've long thought, honestly, that one of the best things about living
here was the feeling of frustration over pollution, in a way that few
other places can offer. The more intense a problem, the more motivated
you are to work on fixing it, right?

Nevertheless, Beijing can't simply keep press a button whenever it
wants to clear the skies of smog or stop rain. Right? Right? (The next
guarantee of the weather will likely come with the Olympics closing
ceremony on the 23rd of August.)

The great irony of course is that whether cloud seeding works or not,
part of the motivation for it is to counteract China's other, more
effective weather modification project -- the one engineered daily by
its legions of cars, factories and power plants.

And even if the government is seen as powerful enough to control the
weather, the central government has precious little control over more
important issues, like corruption and industrial pollution.

But perhaps the fall of the rain in Beijing presents an upshot.

If China has the power to stop the rain (among many other impressive
claims to ingenuity, like those cultural strengths it shared at the
opening ceremony) then citizens and even officials might begin to ask
themselves, "Why don't we have the power to stop more unsavory things
lingering in the air, stop things from from pouring down on the
people?"

See previous posts from Treehugger on Chinese rainmaking href="http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/04/beijing_forced_rain.php">here
and here.
In Plenty,
Tom Scocca goes deeper.