IDSA COMMENT

China’s Experiments with Weather Modification: A Cause for Concern

October 12, 2009

An important facet of China’s conduct of the Olympics last year and of the 60th year celebration earlier this month was successful weather control and modification. Though weather control was exercised to ensure the smooth conduct of the two major events, if employed on a larger scale such ‘mastery over weather’ would have strategic implications.

A major attraction of the National Day Parade was the aircraft fly past scheduled at 1100 AM. Air Force meteorologists found in the morning hours that clouds were approaching Tiananmen area from the south-west. Between 0730 and 0900 hours, they launched four ‘attacks’ on the bank of clouds. To keep skies clear of cloud and rain, 432 rockets were fired at these clouds. Eyewitnesses stated that a few hours before the start of the parade the weather was extremely gloomy and visibility was poor due to pollution. There were thick clusters of cloud and some mist, and rain appeared imminent. But subsequently clear weather prevailed and people felt that the clouds had been held back from the square. Probably, the firing of rockets at the clouds made them evaporate or alternately precipitate before reaching the parade ground. Thus, these weather modification experiments allowed the conduct of the parade under clear weather conditions.

Chinese agencies had made a great deal of preparations to thwart any adverse weather approaching the parade ground. They had 48 specialized vehicles ready to throw streams of air to chase away any approaching fog. Efforts were also made to ensure that visibility would remain fine and the surroundings would remain devoid of any mist or haze. Eighteen aircraft were kept ready to sprinkle adequate quantities of dry ice, salt and silver iodide over cloud tops to evaporate them before they start moving in the direction of the parade area.

Similarly, on August 8, 2008, the day of the Olympics opening ceremony, it was reported that the Chinese Weather Modification office had fired a total of 1,104 rain dispersal rockets. These rockets were fired to stop raid clouds approaching the Olympics arena. This operation lasted for eight hours and rockets were launched from 21 different sites. It is probably because of such an ‘attack’ that these rain bearing clouds precipitated at those locations where they were hovering at the time the rockets were fired at them. Excessive rainfall was in fact witnessed in these areas, with some locales measuring more than 100 millimetres. August is the rainy season in Beijing and the meteorological observatory had predicted rainy weather for the Olympics opening ceremony night. Actual humidity around the stadium was touching 90 per cent in a further indication that rains were likely to come.

The success achieved by Chinese meteorologists during the Olympics and now during the 60th National Day Parade underlines the importance the Chinese state is paying to artificial weather manipulation. Chinese sources indicate that more than 37,000 people are currently employed in weather modification activities nationwide. China has full-fledged weather modification units located in more than 30 provinces and municipalities. Some 30 aircraft have been modified to undertake various weather modification experiments. Approximately 7,000 anti-aircraft guns and 5,000 special rocket launchers are at the service of Chinese meteorologists. In order to have the world’s largest artificial weather modification programme, China invests US $63 million a year.

Such investments could allow China to maintain a weather of its own choice to a certain extent. Despite the limitations of the science of cloud seeding in creating artificial rainfall or in stopping rainfall, it appears that the Chinese are trying their best to master this art. Further success in this field will have significant relevance to Chinese agriculture. Moreover, weather modification has a military side to it as well.

The US Air Force had used various weather modification techniques to modify the weather for military purposes during the Vietnam War. Cloud seeding was undertaken over Vietnam at the beginning of 1967 under ‘Project Popeye’. Here, the purpose was to prolong the monsoon season, bring down more rains and cause flash floods to block enemy supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. According to some estimates, this gave significant dividends to the US forces, probably worth three years of sustained bombing.

There is a United Nations Convention called Environmental Modification or ENMOD convention, which entered into force on October 5, 1978. It prohibits states from ‘engaging in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party’. Many countries including India, Pakistan and US are signatories to this convention. But China is not.

China’s weather modification actions during the October 1 National Day Parade or earlier during the Olympics did not cause any damage or injury to other states, nor were there any militaristic intentions behind them. However, when such techniques are used for military gains they fall into the category of ‘Weather Weapons’. Weather modification techniques could be used for changing the direction of cyclonic storms, create snow storms, flash floods and even forest fires in enemy territory. There are reports that countries like the United States are conducting experiments to control the characteristics of the ionosphere which could allow them to control enemy communications. However, there are significant technological limitations in employing such ‘weapons’ with precision.

But it appears that China is working towards overcoming such limitations. Today, apart from China many other countries including the United States are conducting research on weather modification. It needs to be understood that weather modification is a dual use technique; it would be extremely difficult to identify the intentions of the state undertaking such experimentations. The need for including issues related to weather modification in the ‘security lexicon’ has not been felt so far. The Chinese investment in this technology and its successful demonstration during the 2008 Olympics and the 60th National Day Parade raise some concerns. There is no guarantee that China would desist from using weather modification techniques in conflict situations to gain a military advantage. Even during peacetime, such techniques can be used to create artificial drought or floods to affect the economy of the adversary. In particular, states bordering China need to be careful. The weather knows no borders and weather patterns in a neighbouring state can be affected by experiments conducted on own territory. China thus needs to clear suspicions that have been aroused by its weather modification actions. To begin with it could sign and ratify the ENMOD Convention.