Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world, but if there is a day when the clouds almost certainly disperse and the sun breaks, it is when an important political meeting or event of international importance is to be held in the Chinese capital.
And it’s no coincidence.
Chinese authorities have been using climate manipulation programs for years, and in December they went a step further: the national government announced plans to expand operational capacity to the entire country.
Authorities want programs for artificial rain or snow to cover 5.5 million square kilometers by 2025, which is almost 60 percent of China’s territory.
But the initiative has raised concerns in neighboring countries such as India, due to uncertainty about the technological impact of this and existing regional tensions.
How does China manipulate time?
China uses a method called “cloud seeding”, which has long been known around the world.
It consists of spraying substances such as silver iodide into the clouds to make them produce precipitation, a technique of weather modification.
“Many countries use this technology. “China has been using it for a long time, as has India,” Danasri Jejaram, a climate expert at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Karnataka, India, told the BBC.
“The method is also used in sub-Saharan Africa and the northeast of the continent, where very problematic droughts prevail. Or in Australia, for example. “
However, Jejaram says that elsewhere, those initiatives are much smaller in scope than the one planned by Beijing.
Cloud seeding has a long history, dating back to the 1940s (mostly in the United States), but its results are still highly questionable.
“Very little scientific work has been done on its effectiveness,” John S. Moore, a scientist at Normal University in Beijing, told the BBC.
“Cloud seeding was developed without any prior scientific confirmation.”
In China, the manipulation of time through cloud seeding is an “operational issue”, adds this specialist.
“It is not a research exercise or anything remotely scientific. It is practically done at the community level, in cities and smaller towns. “
It can be seen in action when Beijing organizes some major events, although in these specific cases, such as the annual session of parliament, factory closures usually also play a role in reducing pollution.
Moore says 50,000 Chinese small towns and cities regularly use cloud seeding to avoid damage to fields.
“It practically comes down to trying to prevent hail from destroying crops, so you try to get the rain out of the clouds before they become too dangerous,” he said.
But the scientist says cloud seeding works effectively in China “only one or two months a year.”
In February 2020, the journal New Scientist published an article about an American study in which researchers planted orographic clouds – those that form when air compresses over mountains.
Researchers have found that cloud seeding can increase precipitation, but only by less than 10 percent.
Who owns the rain?
China’s plans to expand weather manipulation were announced on December 2 through a statement by the State Council, its executive branch.
The program will facilitate disaster relief, agricultural production, reactions to forest and pasture fires, as well as dealing with unusually high temperatures or droughts – the authorities did not provide too many details.
“Because the document is entitled ‘Emerging Opinion’, this usually indicates that the central government will set the general framework, while the various ministries and local governments will implement concrete measures, the latter of which will usually receive generous funding,” explains Yicin Wang, BBC. a journalist from Beijing.
He cites, for example, the case of the province of Gansu (in the north), which “immediately announced ambitious targets”, with large drones at the center of the strategy.
(Xinhua tweet announces first drone flight sowing clouds)
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 9, 2021
Less than a month after the announcement, China launched a weather modification program there, with the pioneering drone flight Galin-1 (“sweet rain” in Chinese), the Xinhua news agency reported.
Doubts about this technique have not prevented China from investing large sums in it, and that causes concern in neighboring countries at a time of growing geopolitical disputes.
“One of the concerns is whether this technology will have an impact on the summer monsoons in India, which are also crucial for the entire region.
“But there aren’t many studies in this regard,” says Danasri Jajaram.
The expert believes that this type of statement could have gone unnoticed in India if relations with China were currently in a better phase.
But border clashes between soldiers from both countries have heightened anti-Chinese sentiment in India.
“Theft” of rain
Research from the National University of Taiwan pointed out in a report published in 2017 that the lack of coordination in weather manipulation activities could lead to accusations of “stealing rain” between neighboring countries.
Moore says there is no scientific evidence to support this kind of accusation, although the situation with Asian monsoons is a little more delicate.
“One of the drivers of the monsoon is the difference in temperature between the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Ocean,” explains the scientist.
“So, if you make significant changes to the Tibetan Plateau, as some are planning, I think that could have quite drastic consequences.”
Moore talks about the plan of Chinese engineers at the provincial level to carry out a massive cloud seeding project across the Tibetan Plateau, although this initiative has no national support or any previous research, he points out.
“It’s like a bunch of cowboy builders making a spaceship by copying Ilona Mask or something.
“Most Chinese scientists I work with are appalled by this approach.”
But the biggest concern in the region goes beyond cloud seeding, says Jejaram.
It specifically deals with the possibility for China to apply more ambitious geoengineering technologies (such as solar radiation management or control) without consulting other countries, especially when relations are not as enviable as they are currently with India.
“I do not think that technology is worrying in itself. It can be useful (() And each country has sovereignty over its own territory. But the problem is when you do it one-sidedly (()
“What will happen, for example, if something goes wrong with this type of technology?” Who will pay for that? ”
Jeram says a global framework for regulating this practice and possible conflicts is desperately needed, and Moore agrees.
However, Moore, who leads the geoengineering program in China, calls for calm in this area: “China,” he assures us, “desperately wants to be one of the good guys.”
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