Cloud seeding and hurricane manipulation: owning the weather

  • From forecasting to controlling and modifying the weather
  • Hailstorms, thunderstorms and gale force winds in Abu Dhabi
  • China managed to keep the rain away from the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony
  • Can we reduce hurricane wind speeds by altering the eye of the storm?
  • Sinister uses of weather modification – using the weather as a weapon
  • Silver toxicity, earthquakes and tsunamis – should we be messing with Mother Nature?

Before computers, algorithms, the Internet and radar, weather prediction used to be an all-human endeavour. We looked at things like current weather conditions, barometric pressure and sky condition and used maths to make calculations and develop forecasts. Now we have computer-based models and other complex systems that use data from a multitude of atmospheric factors. Not only does new technology enable us to make extremely accurate predictions, it also makes it possible to deliberately manipulate or engineer certain weather conditions.

Predicting the weather with supersized computers

These days, weather prediction is done with supersized supercomputers. They are almost as big as school buses and organise millions upon millions of bits of information gathered from water levels, wind speeds, temperature, moisture levels and air pressure all across the globe. This information is plugged into algorithms that represent the properties of the atmosphere and create a model grid with which complex weather systems can be simulated and accurately predicted, up to 16 days ahead. Supercomputing power can assist in globally predicting anything from ocean waves and flooding to hurricanes, seasonal climates and air quality. Human input is however as critical to the process of generating forecasts as computers are. Even the most sophisticated digital modelling systems sometimes generate conflicting information and it’s up to humans to add context and nuance. According to the National Weather Service, the most accurate predictions are created by a combination of algorithms and humans.

By predicting the weather we can also predict a host of other things. IBM recently acquired the digital assets of the Weather Company, and combining big data, computer science and atmospheric sciences results in improved weather insights. IMB gathers data from thousands of flights, millions of mobile phones and billions of other reference points and uses this to make various further predictions, tailored to specific industries such as aviation, retail, stock exchange and insurance. For instance, airlines use weather data to predict and/or reduce delays and insurance companies use information about upcoming weather conditions to predict risk.

Several lightning bolts striking in proximity to power lines and houses
According to the National Weather Service, the most accurate predictions are created by a combination of algorithms and humans.

From forecasting to controlling and modifying the weather

The possibility of being able to control the weather has resulted in heavy government and private funding into different weather modification initiatives, with the most common form being cloud seeding. It’s a technique that involves ground based machines such as rocket launchers, dedicated cloud-seeding airplanes and even autonomous drones to ‘impregnate’ clouds with small particles such as silver iodide, salts, dry ice or sodium chloride; pulvarised salt mixed with flammable potassium powder. This accelerates the creation of ice crystals, which eventually leads to rain- or snowfall. As population growth is putting further pressure on water resources, water companies as well as governments are increasingly willing to do whatever it takes to boost their water supplies. Cloud seeding is becoming a mainstream tool and a booming industry. The technology is already regularly used in over fifty countries across the globe, including the US, India, Australia, Russia and China. Various reports have indicated that seeding operations in China have already produced 50 billion tonnes of artificial rain per year, making it the largest cloud seeding technology user on Earth. When you can control the weather, there’s billions to be made.

Hailstorms, thunderstorms and gale force winds in Abu Dhabi

In 2011, the Arabian Business, UK’s Sunday Times and other newspapers reported that between June and August 2010, scientists funded by the president of the United Arab Emirates, had created more than fifty artificial hail-, rain- and thunderstorms around Muhadha, along the UAE border. Helmut Fluhrer, founder of Metro Systems International, the Swiss company in charge of the project, said they used giant ionisers to generate fields of negatively charged particles to promote cloud formation and produce rain from clear skies. As these rainstorms took place in the middle of summer, when there usually is no rain at all, local residents were absolutely baffled. The director of advanced studies on sustainability at Munich’s Technical University stated: “we are now able to increase the availability of fresh water in times of dramatic global changes.” Professor Hartmut Grassl, a former director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, monitoring the project, said that “there are many applications, one of which is getting water into a dry area, a most important point for mankind.” This year, the UAE awarded $5 million to local rain enhancement researchers as well as researchers in Germany and Japan.

China managed to keep the rain away from the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony

The north of China doesn’t usually get much rain. In fact, their rainfall levels are over a third below the world average. The area therefore relies heavily on cloud seeding and the practice has resulted in Beijing’s water basins having increased by almost 14 percent. In 2008, China used over 1100 rain dispersal rockets from more than 20 sites all over Beijing to ensure that clouds released their rain early, before floating over the 2008 Summer Olympics stadium during the opening and closing ceremonies. It is believed that China currently has the largest weather modification program in the world, spending an estimated $100 million per year and employing over 50.000 rainmakers. According to Andy Detwiler, professor of meteorology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who edits the Journal of Weather Modification, said: “The only nations I know of who claim that they can schedule the weather — clear skies for public events, prevent rain at big celebrations — is the old Soviet Union and China.”


Can we reduce hurricane wind speeds by altering the eye of the storm?

Operation Stormfury ran from 1962 to 1983 and was conceived for a noble purpose – reducing hurricane wind speeds. Stormfury involved using silver iodide seeding to create a new eye-wall outside of the eye of the storm. This method would reduce the hurricane’s intensity by closing its original eye. Testing with several hurricanes showed promising results, apparently reducing wind speeds by approximately 30 percent. The efficacy of Operation Stormfury was however called into question by various critics. Firstly, they stated, unmodified hurricanes don’t have enough super-cooled water for cloud seeding techniques to be effective. Secondly, they argued that there was no proof of any difference between natural and modified hurricanes as a result of cloud seeding. Natural hurricanes often undergo similar structural changes and so the reported changes could have been the result of the natural life cycle of the tropical storms. More than ten years after the final experiment, Stormfury was officially terminated. The hurricane lifecycle research and the observational data generated during the Operation did however play a significant role in the improvement of forecasting the intensity and movement of hurricanes in the future.

Sinister uses of weather modification – using the weather as a weapon

Weather modification for sinister use was first discussed within government organisations in 1945, where it was explored for ways to enhance America’s advantage in times of war. During the Cold War, research into weather manipulation was further funded, opening up the possibility of using weather as a weapon. During the Vietnam War, in a top secret mission known as Operation Popeye, the US government seeded clouds over various re-supply and infiltration routes around the Ho Chi Minh Trail area with silver and lead iodide, in order to increase rainfall and extend the monsoon season. The secret mission was uncovered in 1971, when a memo containing the following message to President Johnson surfaced: “Laos operations—Continue as at present plus Pop Eye to reduce the ‘trafficability’ along infiltration routes & authorization requested to implement operational phase of weather modification process previously successful tested and evaluated in some area.”The memo, which was made public by reporter Jack Anderson, led to the prohibition of weather modification technology during times of war. In 1976, a treaty between the US and other governments (ENMOD – Convention of the Prohibition of Military or Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques) was signed by various member states of the UN.

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Silver toxicity, earthquakes and tsunamis – should we be messing with Mother Nature?

Some weather modification programs aim at creating rain to boost water supplies while others focus on dispersing clouds over agricultural fields that need more sun for their crops. There are programs that alter hailstorms – or the size of the hailstones – to minimise crop damage and some are even focused on producing increased snowfall at ski resorts. There are however various concerns around weather engineering. Up until which point is the use of silver iodide and other chemicals safe? What happens if we upset the delicate balance of the atmosphere and what would be the long term effects? Many critics are concerned about the repercussions of messing with Mother Nature. It is the balance between precipitation and evaporation that determines the amount of moisture in the atmosphere and large scale cloud seeding could potentially result in increased evaporation from nearby areas. When rain is made to fall in a certain place – as a result of cloud seeding – what happens to the area where it should have actually rained? We would effectively be stealing someone else’s rain away.

Then there are the conspiracy theories about weather modification being used to provoke droughts, destroy crops and induce strange weather phenomena in countries across the globe. HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) for instance, which was recently transferred from the US Military to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is allegedly responsible for causing earthquakes and hurricanes such as the ones in Haiti. Officials at HAARP however claim that the program is simply a radio science research facility that uses 180 high-frequency antennas on 33 acres to study the Earth’s thin, upper atmosphere. According to HAARP, their emphasis is on understanding and using the ionosphere for the enhancement of communication and surveillance systems. For their research, they make use of EMF to send beams of pulsed radio waves – 1 billion Watts of power – to ‘temporarily agitate a certain area of the ionosphere’, which itself is supercharged with energy. Concerned scientists and researchers, such as HAARP’s Dr. Michel Chossudovsky at the University of Ottawa, asserts that according to the ‘Chaos Theory’ or ‘Butterfly Effect’, small changes in a part of a living system can significantly alter the wellbeing of the entire system. Beaming these radio waves into the ionosphere could therefore have major consequences such as earthquakes and tsunamis. The European Union has recently called HAARP a global concern and called for more information on its environmental and health risks.

Detrimental effect on how humans live and prosper

Research studies indicate that attempting to control the weather can have a detrimental effect on how humans live and prosper. We cannot be trusted with decisions on when and where it should rain, snow or hail, and expect it to have no effect on nature’s balance. Solutions to the environmental and ecological problems that face humanity should be aimed at working with our planet, instead of attempting to dominate and exploit it.

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