When Americans tune in to NBC to watch the Beijing Olympics next week, they could see some of the bluest skies and whitest slopes the Winter Games has ever known.
In keeping with tradition at the last few Games, China is already turning millions of gallons of water into fake snow. But weather interventions take on a more cosmic cast. The government could step in to try to create rain, disperse storms and even turn the sky blue. “The Truman Show” may have nothing on the Beijing Organizing Committee.
The country has long attempted to modify the weather through cloud-seeding, a process of trying to stimulate rainfall by firing silver iodide-filled shells and rockets into clouds. Tens of thousands of people work for the Beijing Weather Modification Office and other provincial counterparts. Over the years, they’ve been tasked with firing rockets to negate sandstorms, reduce hailstorms and relieve drought.
But over the past 14 months China has been ramping up its program to levels seldom seen, either there or around the world. In December 2020, government officials announced a major expansion, setting as its goal triggering rain over more than two million square miles — an area larger than 187 of the world’s countries. The program officially launched last month.
These efforts could have major consequences for both China’s 1.4 billion people and neighbors like Myanmar, India, and Nepal, raising a kind of ethical-meteorological tension between national sovereignty and global responsibility.
Or, in lay terms: does a country have a right to shape the weather?
“I think what we’ve seen from China — and what we’re going to see from China — is weather-modifying technology that’s used more often and more aggressively and more unilaterally, and the truth is we really don’t know what that means for various ecosystems,” said Dhanasree Jayaram, a professor in the geopolitics and international relations department of India’s Manipal Academy of Higher Education who has researched Chinese weather modification. “The one thing we do know is that atmosphere is not divided by political boundaries.”
Cloud-seeding works on the principle that the iodide attracts water droplets. This reshapes the clouds and increases the likelihood of rain.
Its efficacy is, to say the least, debatable. A National Science Foundation study several years ago suggested seeding can increase precipitation. But many researchers say the statistics don’t add up to much, and in fact can’t add up to much because there’s no way to run a control on the same cloud to determine what its output would have been without the seeding.
Early forms of the technique date to the 1940s, and many countries have deployed it on and off over the years. Russia has attempted it at large public events. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. had a top-secret cloud-seeding program known as Operation Popeye that hoped to disrupt the North Vietnamese by extending the monsoon season and creating muddy conditions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. More recently, American officials have tried it at home as an urgent measure to combat droughts in the West.
The fruits of China’s efforts were on display last summer as the government fired rockets into clouds the night before a Communist Party centenary gathering. The objective? Rain that would clear the air over a polluted and overcast Beijing for the gathering the next day, according to researchers from Tsinghua University, a gambit known as “blueskying.”
Led by President Xi Jinping, the ceremony attracted 70,000 people to Tiananmen Square. The skies were clear.
It remains uncertain how much of this tech will be deployed at the Olympics, but in the past three months at least 250 shells were fired at clouds near Zhangjiakou while twelve cloud-seeding aircraft are on alert at the area’s airport. Experts expect a bigger effort than at the 2008 Summer Games, when 21 government-backed stations fired rockets at clouds to prevent them from reaching the skies over the open-air Bird’s Nest the night of the opening ceremonies. (All dignitaries remained dry.)
The abundance of winter events in unpredictable mountain weather could also bring more modification than the indoor-heavy Summer Games.
Among the country’s long-range initiatives is a massive cloud-seeding operation over the Tibetan Plateau meant to irrigate China’s arid north. Thousands of fuel-burning chambers are slated to be installed in the mountains, where they’ll fire shells into the sky, all in the hope of creating rain over the Yellow River that flows into other northern areas.
Details have been scant on the plan, but experts say the epic scale is already clear. The plateau is nearly a million square miles, and this will cover about 600,000 of them. California, by comparison, is 160,000 square miles.
The tech is improving too. In recent years, the American Meteorological Society has documented more efficient use of rockets and shells and better models for finding promising clouds, and it’s believed China’s closely held program is refining these even further.
Not everyone is convinced any of this will accomplish anything.
“Cloud-seeding has always been something for people who have more money than sense, and these efforts are no exception,” said Gavin Schmidt, a senior advisor on climate at NASA who also co-founded the influential blog Real Climate, citing the technique’s lack of statistical proof. “It’s a very big spend with probably not a lot to show for it.”
But others see in China’s moves a kind of troubling environmental hegemony. In a prominent set of papers published in the journals Geoforum and Society and Space, the Asian-environmental expert Shiuh-Shen Chien, a professor in geography, environment and development studies at National Taiwan University, characterized the recent moves as a fundamental shift.
“In China, clouds are no longer seen merely as an atmospheric weather feature. Instead, clouds are now regarded as a water resource for human exploitation,” he wrote as he described several Olympics initiatives.
In an email to The Washington Post, Chien said he had concerns with how China was communicating its plans.
“In the EU, moral and ethical issues … are discussed extensively,” he wrote. “Such transparency and checks and balances are relatively limited in China.”
The larger environmental risks are still unknown. Researchers say there is not yet evidence that regional cloud-seeding has an effect beyond the target area. But they note that almost no country in the modern era has undertaken as sprawling or sustained an effort as the Chinese appear to be doing. People hundreds of miles away — and even neighboring countries — could thus be affected by systemic changes to rainfall and potentially deprived of important precipitation.
As Hannele Korhonen, a Finnish scientist whose project was given a $1.5 million grant for a cloud-seeding project in the United Arab Emirates, asks in a film about the experience, “There is X amount of water in the world. If you make the clouds rain in one place, is the water missed somewhere else?”
Weather-modification is of course not the only intervention at the Games. Beijing and the two nearby mountainous areas hosting the ski and snowboard events — Yanqing and Zhangjiakou — are pretty much devoid of snow. So China is making it almost entirely artificially, using an estimated 49 million gallons of water — and prompting environmentalists to worry it could impact Beijing’s water supply, not exactly voluminous in the first place.
The country is saying it will run a green Olympics and that, in addition to the shutting down of coal-guzzling factories in the days before and during the Games, it will also rely on plenty of wind and solar power. But with the energy and land needed to produce these outdoor competition sites from scratch, many experts are skeptical of the claims.
At the very least, the effort will create a surreal spectacle.
“It’s a wild feeling. If you’re in the Arctic, you have 40 centimeters [16 inches] of snow on the ground. And then you come to China and you ski on a mountain with perfect snow under you, but brown hills everywhere you look,” John Moore, a British scientist who serves a research professor at Finland’s University of Lapland, said in a Zoom interview from Finland.
Moore is not an idle observer. From 2015 to 2019, he led a solar geo-engineering project at Beijing’s Normal University, one of the bigger studies undertaken globally to investigate the idea of cooling the planet by using a variety of means to reflect and limit the sun’s rays.
Moore said the experience showed him the distinct ways China was approaching climate and the weather. “Culturally, it’s very different from in the West, where the outdoors is seen as a wilderness separate from us. In China, the outdoors is more of a garden you tend.”
Cloud-seeding, everyone agrees, is not the kind of globe-rocking measure that solar geo-engineering would be.
But even smaller efforts could cause large ripples. Shiuh-Shen Chien, the National Taiwan University expert, warns of a slippery line between large-scale engineering and one-time local programs. Both, he said, come from the same philosophy.
“Blueskying presents a new ideology that rain and even the sky’s color are subject to human (i.e. state) control,” he wrote. It represents, “a pioneering concept of aggressive weather-taming through temporal restructuring and weather modifications practices. In other words,” he concluded, “blueskying can be seen as a realization of a small-scale geoengineering exercise.”
Some experts say that for all of China’s attempted manipulations it would be a mistake to think of the country as strictly doing environmental harm.
“You have to look not just at damage China is causing but its innovations, like the work on solar panels that are gamechangers from Africa to the American Southwest,” said Schmidt, the NASA adviser and blogger.
Joseph Aldy, professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, says bold unilateral moves can even benefit the environment by motivating other nations.
“If what China does is raise the profile of certain tools and gets them on our radar screens, that’s a good thing,” Aldy, who advocates research on bolder measures like solar geo-engineering, said in an interview. But he cautioned that this needed to be accompanied by robust political discussions. “We have to decide if we’re comfortable letting one country take big steps or if we should develop the policy architecture that allows others to be a part of it too,” he said.
No matter the amount of debate, weather modification can bring on an uneasy feeling. Just the mention of it tends to evoke strong psychological responses, as a program’s environmental unknowns are coupled with Godlike overtones.
Markku Oksanen, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Eastern Finland and one of the leading thinkers in the emergent field of weather ethics, said in an email that he felt the particular application of the tech was what mattered; values were not fixed.
“Much of the acceptability of the weather modification depends on motives. If people are starving and no rain predicted, I would not say to them that it is morally wrong to try to seed clouds and create rain,” wrote Oksanen, who last year published a book on environmental ethics titled “Rights of Nature.” “I would not say that rain creation represents a flawed relationship with the natural world.” Less pressing needs, he suggested, could veer into such territory.
Whether the Olympics — which do provide jobs and revenue to go along with their many ceremonial aspects — fall in the former category is an open question.
For now, China is unlikely to slow down their weather-modification efforts. And that continues to give some experts sleepless nights.
“I worry about a lot of things,” said Jayaram, the Manipal Academy professor. “China can do a lot with this, like create challenges for rival neighboring countries.” (Military use of cloud-seeding is banned under the Environmental Modification Convention; China has acceded to but not ratified the long-standing international agreement.)
“Mainly I worry there’s a lot of uncertainty in what they’re going to do and not a lot of transparency when they do it.”