July 9, 2007

Man Must Conquer Weather

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In the past two weeks in Beijing I’ve seen my first intense rains in this drought-afflicted and dusty city. The lightning and heavy winds simply crash down out of nowhere upon a still mostly pedestrian city, driving taxi availability into the ground and soaking everyone else. I was pretty surprised by the rapid changes in weather…but my local colleagues were not: China, in fact, has the largest cloud-seeding system in the world.

Cloud-seeding is a method to increase precipitation or suppress hail, usually using silver iodide or dry ice. The brother of noted Cornellian and former Sun Associate Editor Kurt Vonnegut ’44, Bernard Vonnegut, is credited with discovering this in 1946 while working at my current employer, General Electric. And although its effectiveness is disputed and there is slight but unsupported concern about its environmental effects, it is used worldwide. The Beijing Weather Modification Office (no joke!) reported that cloud-seeding during the summer of 2006 created Beijing’s heaviest rainfall of the year.

Great, right? After all, droughts in China’s northern regions have left over 8 million people without adequate water this summer alone, and it’s not even a bad year (last year’s droughts left nearly 20 million in China thirsty). And noted institutions such as Cornell University are known to control the weather as well, so…why not?

Well, in this case, it seems clear that the effects are so diffuse in the grand scheme of anthropogenic climate change that there’s no clear answer. But cloud-seeding in China is truly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the current Chinese philosophy with regards to nature. As former PRC Chairman Mao Zedong said, “Man must conquer Nature.” The next set of entries will explore this dynamic as it currently exists in China.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original publication of this entry misstated the position and class year of Kurt Vonnegut. They have both been corrected above.