Julia Hoffmann is a 1st year International Relations student at King’s College London and the East Asia Editor for IR Today. Having grown up in China, she has always been keenly interested in the country’s history and the contemporary political developments that will shape the future of the globalized world.
With the covid-19 pandemic dominating international headlines in 2020 and 2021, many important political news stories have fallen under the radar. In the country where it all began, China, news coverage has been especially focused on the outbreak and handling of the virus. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has even gone so far as to milk this pandemic for all its propagandistic use. But, no matter how overlooked, less sensational developments in China will have an important role to play in the coming decade; and we should start talking about them now. One of those stories? Early in December 2020, the Chinese government announced its plans to drastically upscale its weather modification programme. Although “man-made” weather might sound like dystopian fiction, it is very much real – and potentially very dangerous.
How does weather modification work?
The modification process through which humans can influence precipitation is known as cloud seeding. Although clouds are made up of liquid water particles, these are too small and light to fall to the ground as rain or snow. In the presence of specks of dust, smoke particles or black carbon, water particles in clouds will condense around these naturally occurring condensation nuclei. When these particles coalesce to make a heavy enough water droplet, precipitation occurs. Cloud seeding takes advantage of this process by introducing artificial condensation nuclei into clouds. By plane, rocket or generator, dry ice (solid carbon dioxide), silver iodide or even table salt (sodium chloride) is distributed among clouds. Depending on the chemical used, this increased supply of condensation nuclei can be used to enhance rain and snow fall, shrink hail particles, or suppress lightning and fog.
Although China is the most famous proponent of cloud seeding, this technology has been operationalized around the world. Discovered in New York state in 1946, the US was the first country to use and even militarize this new technology. During the Vietnam War, the US launched its highly classified Operation Popeye. This operation sought to significantly increase rainfall in targeted areas of North Vietnam with the goal of disrupting supply trails. Despite these experiments being “undeniably successful”, the use of weather modification techniques in warfare has since been banned by the Environmental Modification Convention. Another infamous example of cloud seeding occurred during the 2008 Olympic Games in China. Famously interested in extravagant displays of power and prestige, the Chinese government prepared 20 cloud seeding stations to ensure a dry and picture-perfect opening and closing ceremony. According to data compiled by the World Meteorological Organization in 2017, over 50 countries and over 30 private companies have adopted this practice for playing God with the weather.
The dangers of weather modification
Despite already having the biggest cloud seeding system in the world, late last year, the CCP pledged to massively upscale this programme. In 2017, China’s state-run news network reported that China had spent over $1bn on its weather modification in the last five years and claimed to have produced 233.5 billion cubic meters of additional rain. The Chinese government plans on continuing down this path and announced a fivefold increase to their weather modification programme that expands it to cover an area of 5.5m sq km of land by 2025, nearly 60% of the entire country. This expansion is so large, journalists have giddily indulged in numerous analogies, comparing it to an area one and a half times the size of India and 20 times the size of the UK. While controlling the weather might sound like an almost miraculous policy tool, there is a cloud to every silver lining: China’s success with cloud seeding technology comes with potentially disastrous political and environmental costs.
The first criticism raised against cloud seeding came from the scientific community, who is sceptical about its effectiveness. Due to logistical difficulties in conducting weather experiments, studies on the effects of cloud seeding have remained inconclusive – opening the topic up to speculation and academic debate. In 2003, a report by the National Research Council on weather modification research concluded that “there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification efforts”. Four years later, a further experiment in cloud seeding, nicknamed project SNOWIE, shook up the scientific community by proving that cloud seeding could in fact generate snowfall. While questions over the fundamentals of cloud seeding might have been answered, the project was unable to generate the amounts of snow needed to combat droughts. These results have prompted new questions about cloud seeding such as “How and when does it work? How effective is it under different conditions?”, says Sarah Tessendorf, part of the SNOWIE research group. Yet, despite concerns surrounding its real-life application, interest in cloud seeding is rising – even in the West.
With climate change intensifying water scarcity and increasing the frequency of devastating droughts and wildfires, policymakers around the world seem more tempted to embrace cloud seeding. In the US, reports have classified 40% of the west as being in “exceptional drought”. With numbers like that, it comes as no surprise that eight states in America’s arid Midwestern region have turned to cloud seeding. Ironically, however, in trying to solve one environmental crisis, practitioners of cloud seeding might be producing many more. As the difficulty to provide a global response to climate change have shown, the natural world is not a self-contained or border-respecting environment. Actions in one place can have unintended – and devastating – effects somewhere else. One localized volcanic eruption, for example, can lead to temperatures falling worldwide. The CCP’s actions might seem contained to China, but other countries are starting to worry about their hitherto unknown global effects.
Apart from environmental concerns, this issue also bears a political dimension. In recent years, outcry at weather modifications have become louder in China’s neighbouring countries. These worries are not unjustified. A major part of China’s weather modification system is concentrated in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. As the site of Asia’s biggest freshwater reserves, any efforts made by China to redirect water flows in this area are watched nervously by other countries that rely on this water supply. In already hostile relations with India, this presents yet another contentious point in Sino-Indian relations. With China’s recent announcement, conspiracy theories and accusations of weaponization and ‘rain stealing’ might expand not only in India, but worldwide.
Given the scientific, political, and environmental uncertainty surrounding cloud seeding, another issue arises. In the seemingly impossible fight against climate change, policymakers cannot be blamed for looking towards alternatives. However, the focus on cloud seeding as a solution to water scarcity could prove to be both useless and dangerous. By investing in cloud seeding, governments are diverting both valuable resources and attention towards a project with an uncertain future. China’s weather modification system is not only a gamble with its own destiny, but that of the entire world. Whether cloud seeding and weather geoengineering is humanity’s salvation or destruction remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that there are numerous problems attached to these programmes; and potentially more lurking below the surface.
It does not necessarily mean that weather modification research should be stopped, yet, it highlights the need to pay attention to the repercussions of unregulated non-military use of weather modification techniques. As these programmes can affect the entire world, the answer to these challenges should not be left to individual countries and governments, but rather the international community to allow a multi-lateral, internationally-agreed response.