Felix Stalder on Mon, 26 Mar 2018 16:04:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> China needs more water. So it's building a rain-making network three times the size of Spain

The drive towards geo-engineering is gather pace. It's hard to see this
as anything but dystopic. A kind of autonomous vehicle problem wright
large. And this problem goes like this: If the system detects two bads
(e.g. driving over an pedestrian or steering the car into a wall) which
one does it take? Now, if we change the weather patterns, whose weather
should improve? OK, it's not a zero-sum game like in the car accident
situation, but I doubt that this is an unambiguous win-win either. Felix

China needs more water. So it's building a rain-making network three
times the size of Spain

Stephen Chen


China is testing cutting-edge defence technology to develop a powerful
yet relatively low-cost weather modification system to bring
substantially more rain to the Tibetan plateau, Asia’s biggest
freshwater reserve.

The system, which involves an enormous network of fuel-burning chambers
installed high up on the Tibetan mountains, could increase rainfall in
the region by up to 10 billion cubic metres a year – about 7 per cent of
China’s total water consumption – according to researchers involved in
the project.

Tens of thousands of chambers will be built at selected locations across
the Tibetan plateau to produce rainfall over a total area of about 1.6
million square kilometres (620,000 square miles), or three times the
size of Spain. It will be the world’s biggest such project.

The chambers burn solid fuel to produce silver iodide, a cloud-seeding
agent with a crystalline structure much like ice.

The chambers stand on steep mountain ridges facing 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.

“[So far,] more than 500 burners have been deployed on alpine slopes in
Tibet, Xinjiang and other areas for experimental use. The data we have
collected show very promising results,” a researcher working on the
system told the South China Morning Post.

The system is being developed by the state-owned China Aerospace Science
and Technology Corporation – a major space and defence contractor that
is also leading other ambitious national projects, including lunar
exploration and the construction of China’s space station.

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Space scientists designed and constructed the chambers using
cutting-edge military rocket engine technology, enabling them to safely
and efficiently burn the high-density solid fuel in the oxygen-scarce
environment at an altitude of over 5,000 metres (16,400 feet), according
to the researcher who declined to be named due to the project’s

While the idea is not new – other countries like the United States have
conducted similar tests on small sites – China is the first to attempt
such a large-scale application of the technology.

The chambers’ daily operation will be guided by highly precise real-time
data collected from a network of 30 small weather satellites monitoring
monsoon activities over the Indian Ocean.

The ground-based network will also employ other cloud-seeding methods
using planes, drones and artillery to maximise the effect of the weather
modification system.

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The gigantic glaciers and enormous underground reservoirs found on the
Tibetan plateau, which is often referred to as Asia’s water tower,
render it the source of most of the continent’s biggest rivers –
including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Brahmaputra.

The rivers, which flow through China, India, Nepal, Laos, Myanmar and
several other countries, are a lifeline to almost half of the world’s

But because of shortages across the continent, the Tibetan plateau is
also seen as a potential flashpoint as Asian nations struggle to secure
control over freshwater resources.

Despite the large volume of water-rich air currents that pass over the
plateau each day, the plateau is one of the driest places on Earth. Most
areas receive less than 10cm of rain a year. An area that sees less than
25cm of rain annually is defined as a desert by the US Geological Survey.

Rain is formed when moist air cools and collides with particles floating
in the atmosphere, creating heavy water droplets.

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The silver iodide produced by the burning chambers will provide the
particles required to form rain.

Radar data showed that a gentle breeze could carry the cloud-seeding
particles more than 1,000 metres above the mountain peaks, according to
the researcher.

A single chamber can form a strip of thick clouds stretching across more
than 5km.

“Sometimes snow would start falling almost immediately after we ignited
the chamber. It was like standing on the stage of a magic show,” he said.

The technology was initially developed as part of the Chinese military’s
weather modification programme.

China and other countries, including Russia and the United States, have
been researching ways to trigger natural disasters such as floods,
droughts and tornadoes to weaken their enemies in the event of severe

Efforts to employ the defence technology for civilian use began over a
decade ago, the researcher said.

One of the biggest challenges the rainmakers faced was finding a way to
keep the chambers operating in one of the world’s most remote and
hostile environments.

“In our early trials, the flame often extinguished midway [because of
the lack of oxygen in the area],” the researcher said.

But now, after several improvements to the design, the chambers should
be able to operate in a near-vacuum for months, or even years, without
requiring maintenance.

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They also burn fuel as cleanly and efficiently as rocket engines,
releasing only vapours and carbon dioxide, which makes them suitable for
use even in environmentally protected areas.

Communications and other electronic equipment is powered by solar energy
and the chambers can be operated by a smart phone app thousands of
kilometres away for through the satellite forecasting system.

The chambers have one clear advantage over other cloud-seeding methods
such as using planes, cannons and drones to blast silver iodide into the

“Other methods requires the establishment of a no-fly zone. This can be
time-consuming and troublesome in any country, especially China,” the
researcher said.

[One of the chambers in operation in Xinjiang autonomous region. Photo:

The ground-based network also comes at a relatively low price – each
burning unit costs about 50,000 yuan (US$8,000) to build and install.
Costs are likely to drop further due to mass production.

In comparison, a cloud-seeding plane costs several million yuan and
covers a smaller area.

One downside of the burning chambers, however, is that they will not
work in the absence of wind or when the wind is blowing the wrong

This month, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation
signed an agreement with Tsinghua University and Qinghai province to set
up a large-scale weather modification system on the Tibetan plateau.

In 2016 researchers from Tsinghua, China’s leading research university,
first proposed a project – named Tianhe or Sky River – to increase the
water supply in China’s arid northern regions by manipulating the climate.

The project aims to intercept the water vapour carried by the Indian
monsoon over the Tibetan plateau and redistribute it in the northern
regions to increase the water supply there by five to 10 billion cubic
metres a year.

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The aerospace corporation’s president, Lei Fanpei, said in a speech that
China’s space industry would integrate its weather modification
programme with Tsinghua’s Sky River project.

“[Modifying the weather in Tibet] is a critical innovation to solve
China’s water shortage problem,” Lei said. “It will make an important
contribution not only to China’s development and world prosperity, but
also the well being of the entire human race.”

Tsinghua president Qiu Yong said the agreement signalled the central
government’s determination to apply cutting-edge military technology in
civilian sectors. The technology will significantly spur development in
China’s western regions, he added.

The contents of the agreement are being kept confidential as it contains
sensitive information that the authorities have deemed unsuitable to be
revealed at the moment, a Tsinghua professor with knowledge of the deal
told the Post.

Climate simulations show that the Tibetan plateau is likely to
experience a severe drought over the coming decades as natural rainfall
fails to replenish the water lost as a result of rising temperatures.

“The satellite network and weather modification measures are to make
preparations for the worst-case scenario,” the Tsinghua researcher said.

The exact scale and launch date for the programme has not been fixed as
it is pending final approval from the central government, he said.

Debate is also ongoing within the project team over the best approach
for the project, he added. While some favour the use of the chambers,
others prefer cloud-seeding planes as they have a smaller environmental

Spring is coming earlier to the Tibetan plateau and it could affect the
lives of millions

Ma Weiqiang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’
Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, said a cloud-seeding experiment
on such a scale was unprecedented and could help answer many intriguing
scientific questions.

In theory, the chambers could affect the weather and even the climate in
the region if they are built in large enough numbers. But they might not
work as perfectly in real life, according to the researcher.

“I am sceptical about the amount of rainfall they can produce. A weather
system can be huge. It can make all human efforts look vain,” Ma said.

Beijing might not give the green light for the project either, he added,
as intercepting the moisture in the skies over Tibet could have a
knock-on effect and reduce rainfall in other Chinese regions.


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