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Controlling Mother Nature: Does seeding the clouds make sense?

Posting in Government

Tinkering with the weather makes some sense on the whiteboard. Just imagine if you could make it rain or snow whenever you wanted. There would be no drought and life would be swell. But what about the long-term consequences?

I've been fascinated by the developments out of Beijing. The National Meteorological Centre in China has reportedly been tinkering with Mother Nature to make it snow.

On Nov. 1, Beijing had its earliest snow ever. And then the China Daily reported that the Beijing Weather Modification Office, a unit of the National Meteorological Centre in China induced another storm by seeding clouds with chemicals a little more than a week later.

This tinkering with the weather solution makes some sense on the whiteboard. Just imagine if you could make it rain or snow whenever you wanted. There would be no drought and life would be swell.

According to the AFP, Beijing residents would like a little heads up when these cloud seedings occur. That would be nice, but how about a study on the long-term effects of being an artificial rainmaker?

HowStuffWorks illustrates how the Chinese government is messing with the clouds. In a nutshell, every cloud has water particles. Cloud seeding provides some extra ingredients to make water condense. The Chinese toss up a few silver iodide to form ice crystals.

There are three methods to cloud seeding.

  • Spread a chemical in the clouds;
  • Try and boost vertical air currents to make more water pass through the clouds;
  • Or disperse salts via flares or explosives in the lower parts of clouds.

It's heady stuff, but the Chinese government argues it's necessary because Northern China's rainfall totals are below the world average.

The biggest worry is the law of unintended consequences. The AFP report notes that no one knows how weather manipulation will change the sky.

One thing is clear: More research is needed and it's not coming anytime soon.

The National Academy of Sciences in 2003 said more research was needed. In a statement it said:

For the last 60 years, technologies to influence weather have been used in attempts to alleviate droughts or the effects of hazardous storms. Today, operational weather-modification programs exist in more than 24 countries, and in 2001 at least 66 efforts to alter the weather were conducted in 10 states across the United States. But research on weather modification has dwindled, leaving critical uncertainties and knowledge gaps. In the late 1970s, the United States invested more than $20 million a year in weather-modification research but now spends less than $500,000 annually, and only a handful of research programs exist worldwide.

Atmospheric science has made significant advances over the last 30 years, improving our ability to observe the weather, accumulate and assess vast quantities of data, and simulate natural processes using sophisticated mathematical models. But because weather-modification research has not kept pace, these advances have not been applied in any coherent or sustained way to our understanding of whether, how, and to what extent we can influence weather, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The report calls for a coordinated, sustained national program to answer fundamental questions about basic atmospheric processes and address other issues that are impeding progress in weather modification, before any large-scale operational effort is mounted.

There is ample evidence that "seeding" a cloud with a chemical agent -- such as silver iodide, which could form ice crystals that may fall as rain -- can modify the cloud's development and precipitation. However, scientists are still unable to confirm that these induced changes result in verifiable, repeatable changes in rainfall, hail fall, and snowfall on the ground, according to the report.

Isn't it about time we figured this out?

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Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure