China recently announced it will expand its weather modification operations, which involve intentional alteration of weather and cloud water conditions with technologies such as cloud seeding, reports The Guardian. The artificial rain and snow program will cover more than 5.5 million square kilometres by 2025, an area which exceeds 1.5 times the size of India, while hail suppression operations will cover more than 580,000 square kilometres.
In an official statement, China said it expects to have a “developed weather modification system” by 2025. Breakthroughs in fundamental research and R&D in key technologies will enable enhancing prevention against safety risks.
Cloud seeding technology aims to change precipitation by dispersing substances into the atmosphere that work as cloud condensation nuclei, using chemicals such as silver iodide and dry ice. China has been using it for sixty years, mostly to mitigate droughts, but also to ensure a blue sky ahead of important events, as it was done with the 2008 Olympic Games.
But the proposed increase in scale may affect weather patterns in the region. Part of the weather modification efforts focus on the Tibetan Plateau, the largest freshwater reserve in Asia, sometimes referred to as the Third Pole given its ice fields. The Tianhe Project (“sky river”) would divert water vapour above the Yangtze River basin northward to the Yellow River basin, where it would fall as precipitation. Although the project could alleviate water shortages in China’s dry north, it could also cause problems in India and south-east Asia if the water flow of the Mekong, Salween or Brahmaputra rivers – with headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau – is affected.
Other countries are also looking to ramp up cloud seeding efforts in the hope of increasing precipitation, such as Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates. But there are some concerns as to how far China’s government will go in terms of ambitious geoengineering practices. The country has not been shy to embark on massive engineering projects with major impacts, including mega-dams such as the Three Gorges Dam or the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. If weather modification is widespread and mainstream, it could set a precedent for climate engineering interventions such as solar radiation modification (SRM). In this regard, the 2018 IPPC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius already warned that even if SRM could reduce some of the global risks of climate change related to temperature rise, the uncertainties are many and there could be serious governance issues if countries take unilateral SRM measures.