China this week revealed plans to drastically expand an experimental weather modification program to cover an area of over 5.5 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles) — more than 1.5 times the total size of India.
According to a statement from the State Council, China will have a “developed weather modification system” by 2025, thanks to breakthroughs in fundamental research and key technologies, as well as improvements in “comprehensive prevention against safety risks.”
In the next five years, the total area covered by artificial rain or snowfall will reach 5.5 million sq km, while over 580,000 sq km (224,000 sq miles) will be covered by hail suppression technologies. The statement added that the program will help with disaster relief, agricultural production, emergency responses to forest and grassland fires, and dealing with unusually high temperatures or droughts.
China has long sought to control the weather to protect farming areas and to ensure clear skies for key events — it seeded clouds ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to reduce smog and avoid rain ahead of the competition. Key political meetings held in the Chinese capital are notorious for enjoying beautiful clear skies, thanks both to weather modification and the shutting down of nearby factories.
As a concept, cloud seeding has been around for decades. It works by injecting small amounts of silver iodide into clouds with a lot of moisture, which then condenses around the new particles, becoming heavier and eventually falling as precipitation.
A study funded by the US National Science Foundation, published earlier this year, found that “cloud seeding can boost snowfall across a wide area if the atmospheric conditions are favorable.” The study was one of the first to ascertain definitively that cloud seeding worked, as previously it had been difficult to distinguish precipitation created as a result of the practice from normal snowfall.
That uncertainty had not stopped China investing heavily in the technology: between 2012 and 2017, the country spent over $1.34 billion on various weather modification programs. Last year, according to state news agency Xinhua, weather modification helped reduce 70% of hail damage in China’s western region of Xinjiang, a key agricultural area.
And while other countries have also invested in cloud seeding, including the US, China’s enthusiasm for the technology has created some alarm, particularly in neighboring India, where agriculture is heavily dependent on the monsoon, which has already been disrupted and become less predictable as a result of climate change.
India and China recently faced off along their shared — and hotly disputed — border in the Himalayas, with the two sides engaging in their bloodiest clash in decades earlier this year. For years, some in India have speculated that weather modification could potentially give China the edge in a future conflict, given the importance of conditions to any troop movements in the inhospitable mountain region.