When I first heard about Chinese officials trying to control the weather during the Beijing Olympics, I laughed it off as a far-flung idea, loosely based on science, which would never be considered in advanced western countries. For anyone that saw the torrential downpour during the men’s beach volleyball final, it was obvious that the techniques being used by the oriental powerhouse weren’t working too well.
Our news story yesterday on the development of cloud-seeding technology to combat drought  caught me by surprise. Several states in the U.S. and half a dozen prominent countries are pumping millions of dollars into weather-control technologies designed to force rain to fall in certain areas and reduce the size of hail stones. Did I miss the memo declaring rain-making to be a legitimate practice? Well, apparently it’s been happening in the U.S. since the 1950s.
The catalyst being used to produce rain in this case is silver iodide, a toxic, insoluble crystal that fuses water vapor into droplets, and hence produces rain. There are, of course, environmentalists concerned about the direct injection of silver iodide into our crops and water supply, but that is not my main beef.
Firstly, I’m willing to admit that some of the current applications for weather modification are probably valid (increasing precipitation over dams and reducing fog at airports), but the idea that this technology could be used as a tool against drought without significant side effects just doesn’t hold water.
The point made in yesterday’s article was that cloud-seeding technology could be cheaper than desalination plants. The difference is, with a desalination plant you know that you will be getting a certain volume of water at a certain location at any time of the year. Unfortunately, it’s going to take hundreds of millions of dollars for our elected officials to realize that cloud-seeding cannot generate a consistent, reliable source of water on a large scale.
What goes up must come down. And if it comes down in one place, it’s not coming down somewhere else. It’s conceivable that Californian rain-making operations could have a negative effect on the amount of precipitation reaching the more arid regions of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. And don’t even try to tell me that we can avoid flooding in the Midwest by extracting rain from the storm in Colorado — it’s just not going to happen.
All this for a possible 10 percent increase in rainfall? Having lived in a severely drought-affected region, I can tell you that a population can reduce its water usage by well over 10 percent through simple devices such as water tanks, dual-flush (or even no-flush) toilets and designated watering days. More importantly, infrastructure can be developed to make it easier for industry to use non-drinkable water in day-to-day operations.
I’m sure many of these practices are already being used in California and other drought-affected areas, but I don’t think these “easy” options have been exhausted to the point in which it’s necessary to start flying chemical-laden planes through the clouds.
Practical applications aside, the ability to guarantee sunny weekends and dry sporting events sounds appealing, but deep down, we all know that we would miss complaining about the weather.
How do you feel about government-controlled weather? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org .