This site is an archive of Diffractions Collective material from 2013 – 2023
For 2023 and beyond see

Modifying the Means To The End

Written in


In an effort to bring rain to the desert and drought-stricken United Arab Emirates, thousands of drones were sent into the sky and tested in July to bring about a new way of using cloud seeding. The drones distinguish themselves from previous experiments that relied on dispersing silver iodine in the clouds by being equipped with high-resolution sensors. These sensors measure temperature and humidity and release electrical charges that are designed to electrocute clouds in their effort to jolt droplets in the clouds, which in effect trigger them to clump together and produce rain. 1

The phenomenon of weather modification has further gained interest as a technology to transform weather conditions and critically take up the mantle of planetary management. The United Arab Emirates and its usage of drones have also coincided this year with China’s recent unveiling of the world’s first UAV-based weather-modification system earlier this year. The Ganlin-1, whose name means ‘sweet rain,’ adds to an arsenal of potential geoengineering projects that have come to the fore in a world now ceaselessly bracing with flooding, fires, and decimated crop yields that are characteristic of our ‘New Normal’. These recent efforts are gradually being matched by the United States and are planned for Thailand, which intends to set up seven rainmaking centers by next year, as a step towards eliminating water shortages by 2037. Observing the globe, we can see there are a slew of sovereign projects that are conceiving of ways to modify weather within their respective borders. Thus, this era of the New Normal also inaugurates a further crystallization of a geopolitics revolving around blurring the vaporous boundaries between atmospheres, air zones, airstreams, and turbulent and particulate flows that traverse national sovereign territories.

The imperceptible and processual dynamics of atmospheres and air zones are core to what has been termed ‘volumetric geopolitics,’ which involves the entanglements of particles, scales, and boundaries and their continuous recomposition where atmospheric flows are transport vessels for particulates across vast distances upward and downward where “they exhibit a continuous fluid medium of their own—viscous, gravitational, flowing, blowing— constantly composing, and recomposing itself, instigating morphological variation.” 2 Falling under the umbrella of geoengineering methods, the role of weather modification draws on questions as to whether new forms of planetary and popular deliberation will become phased in with a geopolitical world increasingly preset to the necessity of intervention. This necessity of intervention can be synonymous with forms of unilateral action undertaken to tackle climate change becoming the norm in the backdrop of escalating tensions and differentially determined means to shape the emerging planetary order. With an emerging arsenal of technologies for its various applications, a driving conflict will further generate new implications for what becomes a viable means of planetary management and mitigation.

Arguably, weather modification stems back to the 19th century, which arguably originates with the notoriously eccentric figure James Espy. The first official meteorologist to the U.S. Government, eventually acquiring the name the ‘Storm King’, drafted up plans to light huge fires that would stimulate convective updrafts and change rain intensity and the frequency of its occurrence. In his 1841’s The Philosophy of Storms, Espy expressed his grand vision that “led me to see whether rain may be produced artificially in time of drought.” 3 Yet it was not until the 1940s that the materialization and feasibility of weather modification came to be realized, pioneered through figures such as Vincent Schaefer, who was accredited with the first cloud seeding experiments at Mount Washington Observatory.

Cooped up in the Mount Washington Observatory, he experimented with dry ice inside a box, observing a sudden cloud and blue haze emerge in front of him, thus discovering the simulating effect of an erupting change in heat, cold, and humidity in supercooled water that would spontaneously produce billions of ice nuclei. Schaefer conducted a field test on November 13, 1946, testing his results in real supercooled clouds that entailed releasing about 1.4 kg of dry ice pellets from an airplane flying over a supercooled stratus cloud near Schenectady, New York, that immediately produced snow. It was through the course of numerous experiments, that scientists arrived at the concoction of silver iodide that proved to be the most effective and has become the mainstay of weather modification projects. Silver iodide works by nucleating substantial numbers of ice crystals at subfreezing temperatures of −8 °C (+17 °F) and cooler, creating ice crystals in clouds that are typically too warm for natural ice formation. 

Seeding a natural cloud by airplane, the potential usage of cloud seeding secured attention from the U.S. Air Force in what would become one of the most infamous episodes known as Project Cirrus. This infamous episode, where the cocktail of 80 kilograms of dry ice was used to diffuse an oncoming hurricane produced the unintended consequence of swinging it nearly 130 degrees to the west and pouncing on the state of Georgia, which eventually caused 2 million dollars worth of damage. Yet what in one sphere can be perceived as having detrimental unintended consequences could also be translated into opportunity, especially along the grounds for military purposes. Here, forms of weather modification became heavily used between 1967 and 1972 in the jungles over North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, known as Operation POPEYE, where the U.S. Air Weather Service carried out clandestine cloud seeding runs to undermine traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

During its operation, pilots and their crew soared over select regions of Vietnam armed with canisters of silver or lead iodide, ignited the canisters, and released particle-rich smoke into existing storms. This spurred the United Nations adoption of the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), formally the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. ENMOD explicitly stipulates that states must “undertake not to engage 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 another state party.” 4 How ENMOD will increasingly come to the fore as a legal instrument becomes inevitable in part due to technological advances within the fields of synthetic biology and geoengineering that could release substances and organisms that have the potential to alter entire ecosystems on a planetary scale. ibid

Yet, the role of weather modification has not been a relatively novel phenomenon employed in countries such as China. Deeply enmeshed with its history, the root Chinese character ‘to govern’ is tied with water, where an integral role for leader dynasties and recent ones has been controlling floods in the southern Yangtze River Basin and managing drought in the northern Yellow River Basin. Beginning in 1958, the first implementation of weather modification was engineered to combat a devastating drought that afflicted Jilin province, compelling two pilots of the Chinese Air Force to drive a bomber in the clouds that dispersed nearly 200 kg of dry ice. 5 The Chinese have ratcheted up investment and research into weather modification, accounting for the vast majority of projects that, since 2002, have been instrumental in releasing over 500 billion tons of rain and staving off billions in economic losses.


It was not until the 2008 Summer Olympics, that garnered concerning questions as to how effective its deployment can be with the firing of a fusillade of 1,110 military rockets from Jeeps into the evening clouds in order to ensure the opening ceremony would be precipitation-free. Now weather modification has become part and parcel of China’s geoengineering strategy, brought to relief by a large-scale project, Tianhe, or Sky River.

China has ramped up its ambition to increase the total size of its weather modification test area to 5.5 million square miles by 2025, an area larger than that of the entire country of India, which could affect the environment on an epic scale and even potentially arouse conflict with nearby countries. The reality that Tianhe has also been facilitated and invested in by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a “major space and defense contractor,” using “cutting-edge military rocket engine technology” and a “satellite network has engendered concerns about an emerging resurrection of weaponizing the weather. One key focal point or geopolitical locus centers around the Tibetan Plateau, a vital life source for several rivers, including the likes of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, and Mekong, that flow through China, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, serving over 3.4 billion people, or 46 percent of the world’s 7.06 billion population.

With the United States also plagued by fires, and particularly the U.S. facing acute bouts of drought, a resurgence of interest is currently being explored among several states. An emerging patchwork of states located around the Colorado River Basin, split among Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, have allocated around $1.5 million each year to implement these programs. Yet, the extent to which a degree of control can be exercised over precisely engineering precipitation has remained a lingering debate. Further, questions remain concerning the consequences unleashed from cloud seeding, which can include rain suppression, flooding, tornadoes, and silver iodide toxicity, as highlighted in 2014 by the Wyoming Weather Modification Pilot Programme. Nonetheless, the driving push towards having legions of drones and the furnishing of granular measurements and sensors to detect atmospheric variables inaugurates a shift away from the alchemical formulation of silver iodide. Rather, having the role of concentrated lasers perhaps pushes into territory once envisaged and echoed by the likes of a Modernist ethic of absolute control of the weather.

This is particularly exemplified by China’s Ganlin-1, operated by a ground control system and equipped with capabilities such as de-icing, atmospheric detection, catalyst seeding, as well as precisely detecting suitable areas for increasing rainfall and snow. Here, it perhaps echoes John Von Neumann, notable for his involvement with the US Navy, and meteorologist Jule Charney in their endeavor to utilize computerized weather prediction at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton with the aspiration to attain exact prediction of weather, which in turn would lead to its modification.

As Yuriko Furuhata highlights, this fusion of prediction and control of the weather also highlights the moment where the digital and chemical combine and the chemical serves as the medium for controlling the natural elements of the weather. 6 How far we can extend the nature and imaginary of control wrapped up with the rollout of novel technologies of weather modification inevitably will toggle between accident and possibly inadvertent control. Fundamentally, what measures will be employed on the pretext of emergency and the possibility of attempting to designate specific forms as exclusively within their ‘regional atmosphere’ and an already porous ‘sovereign atmosphere’ that will leak into other territories remains to be seen. Nevertheless, how a future will be seeded and by which actors will certainly unfold and play out in the skies.

Works Referenced:

  1. Cohen, A. (2021, August 2). How Dubai is using LASER drones to Shock Rainwater out of the sky. Forbes.
  2. Billé, F. (2017). Introduction: Speaking volumes. Society for Cultural Anthropology.
  3. Espy, James P. The Philosophy of Storms. , 1841. Print.
  4. Sapinski, Jean Philippe & Buck, Holly & Malm, Andreas. (2021). Has It Come to This? The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink.
  5. Chien, Shiuh-Shen & Hong, Dong-Li & Lin, Po-Hsiung. (2017). Ideological and volume politics behind cloud water resource governance – Weather modification in China. Geoforum. 85. 225-233. 10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.08.003.
  6. Furuhata, Yuriko. 2019. “Of Dragons and Geoengineering: Rethinking Elemental Media.” Media+Environment 1 (1)

Diffract this //


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.