BEIJING - As they prepare to host the Olympics —
an event whose very purpose is to push the limits of
human beings — the Chinese are trying to do what
man never has: Control the weather.
With five months to go before the Summer Games
come to Beijing, Chinese scientists say they are
confident they can keep rain away from the opening
ceremony, or summon a storm on cue to clear the
city’s choking pollution.
It’s a bold — and, according to international scientists,
dubious — bit of stage managing, even for a nation that
has already shown an outsize ambition to use
the Olympics to showcase its development from
rural poverty to economic powerhouse.
China is spending $40 billion to remake the
infrastructure of the ancient capital, and it already
spends an estimated $100 million a year and
employs 50,000 for rainmaking.
At installations like one called Fragrant Hills,
outside Beijing, peasants don military fatigues
and helmets and squat behind anti-aircraft guns
and rocket launchers, blasting the sky with silver
iodide, hoping to shock rain from the clouds.
If rain threatens the opening or closing ceremony,
Beijing officials say they will set up several banks
of rocket launchers outside the city to seed
threatening clouds and cause them to release
their rain before it reaches the capital.
“We are now drafting the implementation plan
for the artificial rain mitigation for the opening and
closing ceremonies,” said Wang Yubin, a Beijing
Meteorological Bureau engineer. “This is a very
complex process, so we must select the right time
China, short on water and arable land, has lavished
some of the scarce resources it has on rainmaking
and rain prevention.
Nearly 11,000 weapons
Its cloud-seeding weapons include 6,781 artillery
guns and 4,110 rocket launchers, according to the
state-run Xinhua news agency. The China
Meteorological Administration says 4,231
flights for cloud-seeding were conducted from 1995 to 2003.
The Chinese scientists say it worked —
increasing rainfall during those years by
210 billion cubic meters, enough to meet
the annual needs of 400 million people.
China has a population of about 1.3 billion.
Other scientists are not so sure.
“I don’t think their chances of preventing rain are
very high at all,” said Dr. Roelof Bruintjes,
a meteorologist with the U.S. National
Center for Atmospheric Research, who
was in China several weeks ago and told
top-ranking Chinese scientists he was skeptical.
“If there is really a weather system that is producing
rain, they won’t be able to do anything. We can’t chase
away a cloud, and nobody can make a cloud, either.”
The argument is about much more than precipitation
theory. The Olympics, set to run Aug. 8-24, are tightly
scheduled, and a rainy day can wreak havoc —
particularly if the opening ceremony, perhaps
China’s best showcase of the games, is a washout.
Besides being one of the warmest months of the year
in Beijing, with highs averaging in the mid-80s, August
is among the wettest, with about 7 inches of rain in a
It’s not the first time China has mounted a gargantuan
project to bend nature. The Three Gorges dam project,
spanning the mighty Yangtze River, is the largest
hydroelectric undertaking in the world.
But the history of Chinese science projects has its
quirky examples, too — like the one that promises
to produce softball-size tomatoes or giant gourds
by shooting seeds or seedlings into space and then
sowing them back on earth.
Fifty years ago, during the Great Leap Forward, Mao
Zedong made extravagant claims about new
agricultural techniques that could lift China out
of starvation. His plans to beat nature were based
mostly on ideology and pseudo-science and
caused widespread famine.