Dirty Beijing air? Make rain

Scott Tong Apr 24, 2007

Dirty Beijing air? Make rain

Scott Tong Apr 24, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: We’d been expecting the Chinese government to announce its long-term plan for dealing with climate change today. It’s apparently become bogged down in a debate over whether cutting greenhouse gas emissions would hurt the Chinese economy. Which will sound familiar to those who’ve been following Washington’s own global warming debate.

The Chinese economy’s growing at a rate of more than 11 percent a year. The International Energy Agency says if nothing changes within 25 years, China’s pollution would be double that of the U.S., the E.U. and Japan combined One thing there is no speculation about though: Beijing’s air is already foul. And Marketplace’s Scott Tong reports on one bizarre solution.

SCOTT TONG: Yes, you can mess with Mother Nature.

Here’s how: Spot a raincloud. Then, load your rocket launcher with chemicals, and fire.

[SOUND: Chemical rockets being launched]

Wait five, maybe 10 minutes, and according to the believers, you have created rain.

[SOUND: Rain]

So say proponents of what’s called “cloud seeding.”

Forty-six-year-old Yu Yonggang is a shooter, a rainmaker. He thinks cloud seeding can clear Beijing’s notorious smog.

YU YONGGANG (voice of translator): It definitely does. The rain helps increase the air humidity and the air quality. Why is there less dust and sand in the air? That’s the reason.

Many countries have tried artificial rainmaking: Russia, Israel — even the CIA tried it in Vietnam to flood enemy trails.

China has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on it. It’s even created an Institute for Weather Modification.

Wang Guanghe works there. He explains the science.

WANG GUANGHE (voice of translator): It’s a physical reaction. The chemicals from the rockets create ice crystals in the clouds. We’ve found silver iodine is the most effective to make ice.

That, of course, would make it a silver bullet.

Wang sees cloud-seeding as multipurpose, a kind of public policy Swiss Army Knife. It helps farmers worried about global warming and droughts. It helps factories dealing with hot summers and big A/C bills, since the rain lowers the temperature.

But issue number one in Beijing is the air quality.

Atmospheric scientist Kenneth Rahn has flown into the city several times. Here’s how it looks from above:

KENNETH RAHN: If you put your nose to the window, press really hard and look down, you see something that’s brown gunk. Gunk is not a nice word, but brown gunk.

You then descend through the gunk.

RAHN: You’re going along, and you think, “Well, we’re up so high.” And then all of a sudden you say, “Oh, there’s houses down there. There’s the roads and there’s the little cars and trucks.” And then bang, you’re on the ground right after that.

On a bad day, Beijing’s air is seven times worse than a very smoggy day in, say, Philadelphia. China’s government thinks 400,000 people die every year from illnesses related to pollution.

One of the big culprits is fossil fuels. Coal provides 70 percent of China’s energy. Gasoline powers the 1,000 new vehicles that hit Beijing streets every day.

Ask a local cabbie about all this, and you’re in for a lengthy rant.

CABBIE (voice of translator): In the 60s, there were hardly any cars here. They didn’t start increasing til the 70s. Now, it’s totally overboard.

I ask him about the 1970s, whether the skies were clear back them. His answer, roughly translated, is “Duh.”

CABBIE: Of course, I could see the sky. It was blue skies and white clouds back then. Now, we get it about half the time. Pollution’s out of hand.

The government says it’s responding. It wants industries to burn less carbon relative to the economy. And it’s set stiff car-emission standards. It’s all very long-term.

For now, though, Beijing wants clear skies for next year’s Olympics. It’s calling them the “Green Games.” And that’s where the rainmakers come in — to wash away the smog for the opening ceremonies.

A dozen men are wheeling out some late-model, anti-aircraft cannons. The head of the group, Mr. Li, says once the scientists identify incoming rain clouds, his team has three minutes before show time.

MR. LI: Dong dong dong . . .

Li thinks when he shoots a cloud, he creates rain about half the time.To which Ken Rahn, the American scientist, responds:

RAHN: We know that it doesn’t work. How are you gonna say whether it was your rocket or your airplanes that did it to those clouds? You can have an Indian rain dance, right? And after the Indian rain dance, sometimes it rains. And so you remember the events that worked.

As for the Olympics, he’s forecasting smog.

In Beijing, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.
Atmospheric scientist Kenneth Rahn discusses Beijing’s pollution problem with Scott Tong

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