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Hoping for Just Enough Rain
Ahead of the Olympics, Beijing Obsesses Over the Weather

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 31, 2008

BEIJING, July 30 -- There is an old Chinese saying that when noble guests visit, the streets must be sprinkled with clean water.

But try telling that to the Beijingers transfixed by weather forecasts for Aug. 8, the date of the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The possibility that rain might dampen the planned fireworks-filled extravaganza seems to them too awful to contemplate.

Even worse, though, would be no rain. Without water and wind to whisk it away, the pollution-packed air of this city of 17 million hangs like a gray shroud, dulling the shine on its new sports stadiums and zapping the zing of millions of newly planted flowers.

So getting the rain just right is becoming an obsession, prompting the Chinese news media to devote as much space to weather predictions as to the utterances of President Hu Jintao.

There's now an entire newspaper on the topic. Olympic Weather News launched Monday. The China Meteorological Administration is distributing 80,000 copies of the free bilingual daily at airports, hotels and other public places in Beijing.

Meanwhile, four weather satellites have been positioned to transmit data during the Games. Forecast updates in Chinese and English will be offered every hour.

It's easy to understand why the Chinese are nervous. The weather has not been kind to the country this year. A monster snowstorm in February and, later, massive floods, paralyzed large areas of southern and central China. In May, a devastating earthquake in southwestern China's Sichuan province killed nearly 70,000 people.

Starting in June and running through mid-July, an intense bout of worry set in that rain could mar the Olympics. Although people expected showers because June marks the beginning of the rainy season here, this year the rains were heavier, the temperatures lower and the thunderstorms stronger than normal. According to statistics from Beijing's meteorological bureau, the average rainfall was 55 percent higher than normal.

Seeking to brighten the mood, China Daily, the state-run English-language newspaper, ran a hopeful headline July 16: "Opening ceremony could be rain-free." The story was above-the-fold news because the chance of showers during the show had dropped since the previous story -- from close to 50 percent down to 41 percent.

The new analysis was based on more precise data, taken from an observatory close to the "Bird's Nest," the just-completed National Stadium where more than 80 heads of state will be among the 75,000 people expected to witness the opening ceremony.

Sunny days during those weeks were so rare that when brilliant sunshine broke out on a Saturday, that, too, was a big story. On July 13, the popular Beijing Youth Daily published a full page of photos of people enjoying the rays.

About two weeks ago, the rains stopped. The moist air became sticky and close. Imagine the movie "Body Heat," set not in Florida, but in a Beijing parking plaza amid a dozen idling buses. The sun was out there, but barely visible through the haze.

On July 20, Beijing launched a much-ballyhooed plan to clear its smoggy air. Construction was stilled; private cars had to stay off the roads on alternate days; big trucks were banned during the day; many factories were shut.

But the air didn't clear. It got murkier.

The official New China News Agency published a story Monday that quoted the dismay of blogger Han Song: "Is this what we got, seven days after we pulled half of the city's cars out of the roads?"

Typhoon Fung-Wong came to Beijing's rescue Tuesday morning. Although it hit land far south of Beijing, its high pressure system lashed the capital with welcome wind and rain. By the afternoon, the sky was still a mass of clouds, but the air was clearing. Tops of skyscrapers came back into view. You could almost hear the city's meteorologists sighing with relief.

Experts say Beijing's air quality problems are far from fixed. By Wednesday afternoon, the murk was back. So the right combination of wind, rain and temperature is needed to keep up appearances for a while.

The Chinese don't want to leave that combination up to chance. If there were a medal competition for weather modification, China would be favored to take the gold.

The New China News Agency reported Monday that an entity called the Beijing Weather-Engineering Office has hired 32,000 people and set up 26 control stations to weave a "defensive web" around the Bird's Nest to stop rain falling from the start of the Aug. 8 opening ceremony at 8:08 p.m. until its close at 11:30 p.m.

The agency reported that since 2001, when Beijing was awarded the Games, meteorologists have been experimenting with "cloud seeding" -- shooting dry ice into clouds to make the water droplets heavier. That allows meteorologists to squeeze rain out of the clouds early, before they drift over the Bird's Nest, although the technology is said to work only with light cloud cover.

Qiao Lin, chief forecaster of the China Meteorological Administration, says that if rain does fall during the opening ceremony, it is likely to be light, not a downpour.

As the old Chinese saying has it, such a sprinkle could be auspicious. "If there is a minor rain during the opening ceremony, that's a sign of the Chinese people's kindness and hospitality," said Yuan Li, a Beijing folklore researcher.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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