What other government in the world, for what other reason, would be able to "guarantee" the weather? One of the biggest feats of China's spectacular opening ceremony on Friday wasn't inside the stadium. As those of us inside the Bird's Nest feared rain -- and secretly, because of the heavy heat and humidity, prayed for it -- the city's meteorological bureau peppered approaching clouds with over 1000 silver-iodide rockets. That triggered intense showers outside the city and preempted a rainfall on China's parade.
It was one of the more fitting, if unacknowledged, touches to the super-sized ceremony, which after all was about China's human daring and ingenuity.
Ever since Mao Zedong, who declared that "man must defeat the heavens," the country has used cloud-seeding mostly to alleviate drought. Though NASA plays with the technique to provide good weather for shuttle launches and Los Angeles and Wyoming have relaunched their own programs, Friday's ceremony may have marked the world's most critical and singular rainmaking mission, one which scientists had in their sights for years: clearing the skies for the world's largest event.While the city was setting off 33,866 fireworks, it also "fired a total of 1,104 rain dispersal rockets from 21 sites in the city between 4 pm and 11:39 pm on Friday, which prevented a rain belt from moving toward the stadium," bureau chief Guo Hu said, according to China Daily.
Just as the rockets were slamming the clouds, the opening ceremony reached a middle section, "Nature." At the center of the stadium children were painting a landscape and singing a song:
The air is warming
The ice cap is melting
Land becomes smaller
Birds are vanishing
We plant trees
We sow seeds
The earth turns green
The sky is blue indeed...
Even before it won its Olympic bid in 2001, China poured millions of RMB into its rainmaking project, hoping to trigger smog-clearing showers, provide water to dry land and, for the opening ceremony, keep storm clouds at bay. Though there are widespread doubts about how effective cloud-seeding is -- even some officials have admitted their techniques remain un-proven -- Beijing says it is able to control some of the weather some of the time. And while the city is known for heavy summer rain, in the past two years you could sometimes tell when a sudden downpour was coming based on the visiting schedule of IOC officials.
Besides concerns about the chemicals used (safe, officials insist), and the occasional cement bag falling from a seeding plane, there are larger questions about how cloud-seeding can negatively effect weather patterns, and how it serves to "wash away not just the dirt, but people's memory" of the dirt, as Wen Bo told me in 2006.
Given the city's and the country's environmental issues, techniques like forced rain, drastic car bans, factory shutdowns and general sugar coating only obscure the bigger problems, creating apathy among officials and citizens and drawing money away from sustainable projects, like improving irrigation or cleaning up factories. I've long thought, honestly, that one of the best things about living here was the feeling of frustration over pollution, in a way that few other places can offer. The more intense a problem, the more motivated you are to work on fixing it, right?
Nevertheless, Beijing can't simply keep press a button whenever it wants to clear the skies of smog or stop rain. Right? (The next guarantee of the weather will likely come with the Olympics closing ceremony on the 23rd of August.)
The great irony of course is that whether cloud seeding works or not, part of China's reason for doing it is to counteract an even more effective weather modification project -- engineered by its legions of cars, factories and power plants.
Also see this recent Boston Globe article on cloud seeding.