China’s President Xi Jinping announced that “no force” can shake China during the huge military parade to celebrate 70 years of Communist Party rule on October 1. China’s progress in the military arena was on full display during this parade. One of the major military systems displayed was the new hypersonic ballistic nuclear missile. Such missiles are capable of breaching all existing anti-missile shields available with the major powers. However, one weapon, which China was expected not to “display” but to “demonstrate” was absent and that was the Weather Weapon.
Chinese authorities always try to ensure that they have blue skies during the conduct of such parades and festivities. However, this time, there was a cloud of smog hanging over Beijing. Though it did not dampen the spirits of the people, it did prove that the Chinese Communist Party may control many things but it still cannot control the weather. However, it is important to note that in recent past China has been manipulating the weather over a limited geographical area with some success before such mega events. There could be various reasons for China failing to do so this time.
In the past, on various occasions, China has successfully managed clear skies. The most talked-about incident was the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting held at Beijing during November 10-12, 2014. During this event, China ensured that Beijing, which is famous for its heavy haze and smog, would have absolutely blue skies. Since then, this Chinese ability to have blue skies on demand is famously referred as “APEC blue”. In 2014, this became possible since Beijing and nearby regions were put under most stringent pollution control measures. It was a result of harsh 11-day emissions-reduction measures.
To have blue skies during the October 1 parade, the efforts started well in advance. August 20 onwards, no trucks were permitted to enter Beijing and all construction work was halted. Also, there was a major clampdown on mining activities and fireworks were totally banned. There was even a request for to stop production in the nearby industries. All this was leading to an improvement in the sky conditions. However, just few days before the event, a weather system in the form of a low-pressure front got positioned unfavourably and ended up pushing the pollution from the surrounding provinces towards Beijing. Also, there is a possibility that the authorities would not have employed heavy-handed practices against polluting industries for various reasons.
It is important to note that the Vice Premier Hu Chunhua had visited the China Meteorological Administration and had asked for possible meteorological support just before the 2019 parade. Normally, such support comes in the form of firing missiles/rockets on the rainbearing clouds, making them precipitate before they approach the Tiananmen Square parade ground. Such rockets (with “warheads” containing dry ice, salt and silver iodide) are part of weather modification experiments and make precipitation happen. Usually, such rain also cleans up the smog-filled atmosphere. Possibly, this time there were no clouds around Beijing and hence, there are no reports of firing of any rockets. Exactly 10 years ago during the 60th National Day Parade, China had managed clear skies through such attacks on clouds. As per reports, some 432 rockets were fired then.
China has a well-developed infrastructure to undertake such tasks. They have many specialised vehicles ready to throw streams of air to chase away any approaching fog. Similarly, on August 8, 2008, the day of the Olympics opening ceremony, it was reported that the Chinese weather modification office had fired a total of 1,104 rain dispersal rockets. These rockets were fired to stop rain clouds approaching the Olympics arena. This operation lasted for eight hours and rockets were launched from 21 different sites.
There is evidence that in the past even during wars, states have used such techniques not only to help the advancement of their own forces, but also to cause flooding over enemy territory. During the Vietnam War (1967), US forces had launched Operation Popeye. This led to heavy flash floods and is known to have caused damage possibly worth three years of sustained bombing.
Today, China has a well-established architecture to undertake weather modification at will and runs one of the biggest weather modification programmes in the world, with investments touching millions of dollars. China has modified various aircraft to conduct weather modification experiments. They are keen to change the weather pattern over the Tibet region. There is a plan to use weather modification techniques to divert water vapour (Project “Sky River”). Many scientists are known to be working on the “art of mastering the weather”.
There is a United Nations Convention called Environmental Modification or ENMOD convention, which prohibits states from “engaging in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques”. Various major countries are signatories to this. However, even during peacetime, any large-scale weather modification experiments possibly leading to changes in the ecological balance are not a healthy proposal. Artificial weather changes, which could be a boon for one geographical region, may turn out to be a bane for other nearby regions.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 3, 2019, under the title ‘Red weapons, blue skies’. The writer is senior fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi