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Climate Control, Beijing-Style
The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain, but in China? Well, the government will decide.
June 2, 2006 - The rainy season has come to northern China, and it’s a brave new world out there. Actually the natural rainy season doesn’t start until July. But the season of man-made rain is upon us, and Chinese rainmakers have been busy. Over the past month they've mobilized cloud-seeding aircraft, artillery and rockets to enhance rainfall. "We've ordered technicians to try to make it rain again today, but so far they haven’t reported back on the results," says Zhang Qiang, a businesslike woman who heads the Beijing Weather Modification Office (yes, that’s the official name of a real Chinese government agency). "We did it many times last week to increase the rainfall."
Not content with simply making it rain, now China's weather modifiers have taken on another meterological mission: to help guarantee perfect weather when Beijing hosts the Olympic Games in 2008. "In China, we haven’t done this type of thing on a very large scale yet," says Zhang during an interview in a west Beijing compound housing five antiaircraft guns used to shoot chemicals into the clouds. "The Russians have experience creating good weather, and we can learn something from them. We still have two more years for testing. I’m sure our preparations for the Games will go well."
Zhang's office, which employs 30 people, is part of the Beijing municipal government and the nationwide China Meteorological Administration. Her unit uses two aircraft and 20 artillery and rocket-launching bases to help modify weather around the city. Springtime is the busiest season for agricultural purposes. But more and more, Zhang and her colleagues are experimenting with weather modification to try to create blue skies. Toward this end, they’ve spent nearly a month and a half total researching the effects of certain chemical activators on different sizes of cloud formations and at different altitudes. Chinese meteorologists claim that similar efforts helped create good weather for a number of past VIP events in China, including the World Expo in Yunnan, the Asian Games in Shanghai and the Giant Panda Festival in Sichuan.
And why not? The central-government leadership—dominated by engineers—has been messing with Mother Nature ever since the Chinese Communist Party came to power. They’ve built the world’s biggest dam, the world’s highest railway and even the world’s biggest Ferris wheel (in Nanchang, still awaiting verification from the Guinness World Records). Why not perfect the science of climate control?
Well, um, there is the small political question of what happens to apparatchiks if they get it wrong. At least that’s what was on Zhang’s mind on Sept. 30, 1999, as Chinese leaders frenetically prepared for Beijing’s National Day celebration the following morning. Marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Oct. 1 was slated to be a bash with a full-on military parade, goose-stepping militiawomen in red miniskirts and a flyover of aircraft and helicopters buzzing Chinese VIPs on the rostrum above Tiananmen Square.
But there was one problem: a storm system threatened to make it rain on Beijing’s parade. China’s rainmakers debated whether to induce a strong downpour just before the gala, increasing the chances of blue skies on the big day. “I was on duty,” recalls Zhang. “I intended to modify the weather by using artillery.”
But Zhang understandably fretted about Mother Nature’s unpredictability. “I worried that if the techniques I used weren’t good enough, there would be a big problem. I could make things even worse,” acknowledges Zhang, inferring that she could have lost her job. “So I didn’t dare do anything.” To everyone’s relief, the rain stopped of its own accord.