Russians plan to use cloud seeding to curtail heavy snowfall in Moscow

By Megan K. Stack
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

MOSCOW -- In the snow-hushed woods on Moscow's northern edge, scientists are decades deep into research on bending the weather to their will. They've been at it since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin paused long enough in the throes of World War II to found an observatory dedicated to tampering with climatic inconveniences.

Since then, they've melted away fog, dissipated the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl and called down rains fierce enough to drown unborn locusts threatening the distant northeastern grasslands.

Now they're poised to battle the most inevitable and emblematic force of Russian winter: snow.

Moscow's government, led by powerful and long-reigning Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, has indicated that clearing the capital's streets of snow is simply too expensive. Instead, officials are weighing a plan to seed the clouds with liquid nitrogen or dry ice to keep heavy snow from falling inside the city limits.

Word of the proposal has sent a shudder through Moscow just as the first dark, snowy days have fallen on the capital. It has also piqued the surrounding region, which would receive the brunt of the displaced snowfall, and has raised concerns among ecologists.

"I was very surprised because [the mayor] never even asked us," says Alexei Yablokov, who sits on the mayor's ecological council and has concerns about the proposal, including the environmental effects and pressure on surrounding villages. "We never discussed it at all."

The city government says it still hasn't reached a decision. But scientists at the Central Aerological Observatory say they are deep into negotiations with authorities and expect the cloud-seeding plan to go forward.

The city has hit upon a splendid idea, the scientists say. Laboring against the uncomfortable sense that their observatory's import has waned since its Soviet heyday, they are eager to unleash their many and various technologies.

They already seed the clouds for political effect, clearing the skies over Moscow twice a year to ensure sun-drenched celebrations of patriotic holidays.

In Russia, nobody rains on the parade -- because the Russian government doesn't allow it.

"Victory Day is the most sacred holiday for us," says Bagrat Danilian, deputy chief of cloud seeding at the observatory. "When veterans go out to celebrate in Moscow, we create good weather for them."

All it takes, he says, is sacks of cement -- 500-grade, to be precise. Drop the powder down into the clouds, and they vanish.

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