A year ago Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, and it's been consumed with a frenzy of preparation ever since. Weather is a particular concern, since the city's eye-searing pollution almost nixed China's bid. So now Beijing is banishing polluting factories from city limits, planting trees to keep out dust blown in from the Gobi Desert and clamping down on vehicle emissions in hopes of guaranteeing blue skies by 2008.
Beijing's bureaucrats have also embarked on a Great Leap Forward in manipulating the weather by dispelling rain and fog, trying to ensure that nothing, er, clouds China's achievements and image during important public events. "We'll definitely be consulted on how to create beautiful conditions for the Olympics," says Wang Wang, one of China's foremost experts at Beijing's Study Institute of Artificial Influence on the Weather.
Chinese officials' interest in controlling weather dates to the 1950s, when Beijing had access to "cloud seeding" expertise from the U.S.S.R. Since then, provincial bureaucrats all across northern China have learned to induce rainfall yearly between April and June to combat the region's chronic drought, says Wang. Using aircraft, rockets and even land-based furnaces, experts propel tiny amounts of silver iodide into certain types of cloud formations to accelerate condensation, creating rain on demand--and averting showers during later scheduled events. Depending on the type of cloud, liquid nitrogen, dry ice and sodium chloride (yes, salt) can also be used.
Does it work? Wang proudly relates how he helped provoke rainfall to douse a Heilongjiang forest fire in 1987. Around the same time, he says, "we experimented for a month to disperse fog and rain for China's Oct. 1 National Day Parade." Rain was also successfully averted at least three times in the past decade, twice for public sporting events and once during a panda festival, he says. And Beijing has now started trying to control those who would control the weather. Regulations unveiled two months ago stipulate that "artificially induced weather cannot take place whenever people want," especially since "dangerous missiles" are sometimes used. Indeed, one rain-making attempt went awry earlier this year when a rocket fell through a villager's roof in northern China. "It's still not a mature art," says Wang.