China at efforts to show you can control the weather

What’s happening? China intends to increase its ability to modify weather and will expand an artificial rain and snow initiative to encompass a minimum of 5.5 million sq km of land by 2025, according to the country’s cabinet. China’s weather modification capabilities will be at an “advanced” level by 2035 and will concentrate on boosting rural regions, restoring ecosystems and reducing losses from natural disasters, according to the State Council. China has previously used cloud seeding technologies to relieve droughts and purify air.

Why does this matter? Deploying weather modification technologies on a large scale may sound like something out of science fiction, but it could also be increasingly used to counteract climate change impacts.

China plans to expand what is already the world’s largest cloud-seeding project five-fold and explore other abilities to suppress fog and boost air quality. Such technologies have already been used in the country to modify conditions ahead of international events, such as at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where they were deployed to stop rain from interrupting the opening ceremony.

Chinese scientists are also developing the Tianhe “sky river” system in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, Asia’s largest freshwater reserve, to alleviate dry conditions by diverting water vapour from the Yangtse river basin to the Yellow River basin.

Cloud seeding aims to influence precipitation by injecting silver iodide into clouds with high moisture levels, with water then condensing around these particles and falling as rain. Other geoengineering technologies that have been explored include marine cloud brightening, where the brightness and reflectivity of marine clouds have been increased to reduce surface water temperatures and slow coral bleaching. Elsewhere, stratospheric aerosol injection aims to replicate the effect of a volcanic eruption, by adding particles to the stratosphere, which then reflect and scatter inbound sunlight and lower the Earth’s surface temperatures.

Some studies have indicated atmospheric geoengineering can mitigate climate change effects to limit temperature rises to targets outlined in the Paris Agreement. These techniques should, however, be viewed as a temporary measure, not a long-term solution, and shouldn’t detract from broader efforts to address climate change directly by accelerating emissions reductions. Additionally, research indicates solar geoengineering may become increasingly ineffective in reducing surface temperatures if emissions continue to increase.

As well as modifying the conditions of the atmosphere, biological modifications such as gene-editing techniques can be used on a large scale to address climate change. These techniques could be used to reduce agricultural emissions while doubling productivity, shrinking food waste and boosting the carbon sequestration properties of plants. Argentina, for example, has approved the use of a gene-edited wheat variety that is drought-resistant and which limits water stress and food scarcity.

Lateral thought from Curation – Climatic geoengineering holds potential to influence geopolitical dynamics. If nations such as China were to successfully roll out national weather-altering programmes, they could gain an advantage over others lacking the resources and finance required to develop and utilise these techniques, which could also worsen existing inequalities.

While easing shortages in northern Chinese provinces, the water diversion plan has potential to disrupt regional weather patterns in surrounding areas in Southeast Asia and India – and particularly the flow of major rivers such as the Mekong and Brahmaputra which rely on the Tibetan plateau as a source. Given recent border tensions between India and China, could weather modification even be utilised as a tool in future conflicts?

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Katie Chan

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