November 14, 2007
China Embraces Local Area Climate Engineering

Chinese cities compete to extract rain from passing clouds.

When next summer's Olympics roll around, the Beijing Weather Modification Office will be poised to intercept incoming clouds, draining them before they get to the festivities. No fewer than 32,000 people nationwide are employed by the Weather Modification Office -- "some of them farmers, who are paid $100 a month to handle anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers" loaded with cloud-seeding compounds. Some estimate that up to 50 billion tons of artificial rain will be produced by 2010. But Taylor noted that this has resulted in competition between cities to seed clouds first, and bitter acrimony when when region receives water claimed by another.

This reminds me of cities and states in the US West (and other parts of the world) fighting over who gets to use the water in rivers passing through their territories. The Colorado River turns into a trickle by the time it reaches Mexico.

But atmospheric tinkering is likely to have much further reaching effects than using water out of rivers. Clouds probably bring a lot more water across international borders than rivers do. Also clouds, by their very presence, cause light to be reflected into space. Reduce cloud cover by massive seeding projects for rain and the net effect is probably to warm the Earth. But Willie Nelson might be tempted. There's only going to be blue skies for now on.

Weather delivers great benefits but also inflicts large costs. The development of cheap climate engineering technologies will provide a big temptation to reduce the costs. For example, hurricane cloud seeding could reduce hurricane intensity and even change hurricane direction.

Moshe Alamaro, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told The Sunday Telegraph of his plans to "paint" the tops of hurricanes black by scattering carbon particles either soot or black particles from the manufacture of tyres from aircraft flying above the storms. The particles would absorb heat from the sun, leading to changes in the airflows within the storm. Satellites could also heat the cloud tops by beaming microwaves from space.

"If they're done in the right place at the right time they can affect the strength of the hurricane," Mr Alamaro said.

Imagine a category 3 hurricane (similar to the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane) was bearing down on Manhattan. Would it be worth it to shift its land collision point toward an outlying suburb on Long Island or New Jersey? The total amount of damage caused might be reducible by an order of magnitude. But who suffers the damage changes with the directional shift.

A massive hurricane is about to cause tens of billions of dollars in damage to New York City. Picture insurance companies offering to pay the losses of all the uninsured of Long Island if the US government agrees to divert a hurricane away from New York City. A good idea?

About global warming: China is establishing an interesting precedent. By intervening routinely in the climate it is making it easier for other governments to do as well. Suppose global warming becomes a real problem. What's to stop, say, India and Bangladesh from using cheap climate engineering in order to easily reverse a warming trend? If the rest of the world makes the planet heat up (and I'm not saying this is really going to happen) then why shouldn't India and Bangladesh use climate engineering to prevent melting water from submerging their lowlands?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 November 14 09:24 PM  Climate Engineering

James Bowery said at November 14, 2007 11:54 PM:

An Atmospheric vortex engine could be simplified to not extract energy -- thereby reducing both capital cost and risk -- so as to create artificial thunderheads. Note, thunderheads have a maximum precipitation potential per unit of reflective area. Basically, all you need is a big temperature differential between ground and several miles up.

Fly said at November 15, 2007 11:34 AM:

"Reduce cloud cover by massive seeding projects for rain and the net effect is probably to warm the Earth."

Low-altitude and high-altitude clouds reflect sunlight to cool the Earth. However, clouds also act as heat blankets which warm the earth. From my recollection the cold, high-altitude clouds make a better heat blanket. So low-altitude clouds cool the Earth and high-altitude clouds warm the Earth.

To add to the complexity, some of that rain water will eventually evaporate and form more clouds.

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