In the wake of efforts to create precipitation and combat the arid and drought-stricken landscape of the United Arab Emirates, legions of drones have been unleashed and tested this past July to usher in a novel deployment of cloud seeding. The drones distinguished from previous experiments that relied on dispersing silver iodine in the clouds are equipped with high-resolution sensors that measure temperature, 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 in serving 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, decimated crop yields that are characteristic of our ‘New Normal’. These recent efforts are gradually being matched by the United States and planned for Thailand that is intending to set up seven rainmaking centers by next year, in 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, turbulent and particulate flows that traverse national sovereign territories.
The imperceptible and processual dynamics of atmospheres, air zones are core to what has been termed as a ‘volumetric geopolitics’ that 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 what new forms of planetary and popular deliberation will become phased in with a geopolitical world increasingly preset to the button of 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 armamentarium of technologies for its various applications, a driving conflict will further generate new implications of what becomes a viable means of planetary management and mitigation arises.
Arguably, Weather Modification stems back to the 19th century that 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 in 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 erupt change in heat and cold, humidity in supercooled water that would spontaneously produce billion 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, arriving 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. The infamous episode where the cocktail of 80 kilograms of dry ice 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 detrimental unintended consequences, also could 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 soaring 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 fields of synthetic biology and geoengineering that could release substances and organisms that have the potential to alter entire ecosystems at 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 leaders dynasties and recent has been controlling floods 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 a vast majority of projects that since 2002 have been accordingly instrumental in releasing over 500 billion tons of rain and staving off billions in economic losses.
It was not until garnering attention in the 2008 Summer Olympics, that has reintroduced questions as to how effective its deployment can be with the firing of a fusillade of 1,110 military rockets from jeeps evening clouds 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 defence contractor,” using “cutting-edge military rocket engine technology” and “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 or 46 percent of the world’s 7.06 billion population.
China’s current enterprise is to construct an elaborate network of tens of thousands of fuel-burning chambers that would be installed on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau is estimated to take up an area three times the size of Spain, in their bid to increase rainfall by up to 10 billion cubic meters a year. The chambers are purposefully positioned on steep mountain ridges that face the moist monsoon from south Asia. As wind hits the mountain, it produces an upward draft and sweeps the particles into the clouds to induce rain and snow. A key focus behind this project for China becomes the desire to transfer moisture from the Yangtze River basin to the Yellow River basin via water vapor that becomes rainfall. Yet the potential adverse consequences that might arise orbit around that while reducing water shortages in China’s dry north, it could also engender problems in India and south-east Asia. This particularly comes to the head if the water flow of the Mekong, Salween, or Brahmaputra rivers with headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau becoming impacted. Ultimately, the increasing importance of cloud water resources in China’s environmental governance oscillates between ‘forcible’ and ‘controllable’ precipitation via weather modification has become entwined with complicated social and political processes in the hydro-social cycle.
With the United States also plagued with fires, and particularly the U.S. facing acute bouts of droughts, a resurgence of interest is currently being explored among several states. Here 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 what 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 that can include rain suppression, flood, tornadoes, and silver iodide toxicity that were 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 the territory once envisaged and echoed by the likes of a Modernist ethic of absolute control of the weather. This becomes 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 and 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 serve as the medium of 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 to attempt to designate specific forms as exclusively within their ‘regional atmosphere’ and an already porous specific ‘sovereign atmosphere’ that will leak into other territories remains to be seen. Nonetheless, how a future will become seeded and by which actors ensure it will certainly unfold and play out in the skies.
- Cohen, A. (2021, August 2). How Dubai is using LASER drones to Shock Rainwater out of the sky. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/arielcohen/2021/07/28/dubai-is-using-laser-drones-to-shock-rainwater-out-of-the-sky/.
- Billé, F. (2017). Introduction: Speaking volumes. Society for Cultural Anthropology. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction-speaking-volumes.
- Espy, James P. The Philosophy of Storms. , 1841. Print.
- Sapinski, Jean Philippe & Buck, Holly & Malm, Andreas. (2021). Has It Come to This? The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink.
- 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.
- Furuhata, Yuriko. 2019. “Of Dragons and Geoengineering: Rethinking Elemental Media.” Media+Environment 1 (1)