Last week, heavy downpours and floods in Dubai kindled some chatter around cloud seeding. So in today’s Finshots, we talk about the good and bad economics of artificial rain.

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The Story

It rained cats and dogs in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) last week. Parts of the country received more rainfall in a day than it receives on average in an entire year. It flooded the glitzy city of Dubai and shuttered its busy airport too.

And this suddenly sparked rumours that cloud seeding was the culprit!

But experts don’t agree with this theory. They blame it on climate change and the erratic weather patterns it creates.

Now we're not going to debate the cause and we hope that the UAE recovers soon, but we thought we could talk about this trending term ― cloud seeding.

In 1946, Irving Langmuir, a Nobel Prize winner and research scientist at New York’s General Electric Labs was studying the buildup of ice on airplane wings. One thing led to another, and he soon wanted to figure out why the mist at the nearby Mount Washington never converted into snow, despite the temperature being well below 0°C (water’s freezing point).

To help with that, he hired Vincent Schaefer, a research assistant, who ran his experiments on a freezer.

Schaefer kept playing with the freezer conditions and exhaling into it to see if the moisture in his breath would convert into ice or not. It never did. And one summer day and many failures later, he observed that the freezer was struggling to keep cold. So, he decided to throw in a block of dry ice or solid carbon dioxide to help it. And that was enough to convert the supercooled water inside, back into ice. The trick was that the dry ice was much, much colder.

This discovery got Langmuir thinking “Clouds are basically bags of supercooled water. And rain is actually ice crystals falling from the sky, which melt on their way down. So what if I shoot dry ice pellets into these rain heavy clouds to induce snow?” Langmuir and Schaefer flew a plane into the sky and did exactly that. They made the clouds shed snow which melted into rain on their way to the ground.

And that folks, is how humans learnt to modify the weather or what you call cloud seeding.

Sidebar: Bernard Vonnegut, an atmospheric scientist and Langmuir’s colleague, later dug through chemistry books to find out that any material that has a chemical structure similar to ice can have the same effect as dry ice. And since silver iodide particles fit the bill, they can also be used to induce the formation of ice crystals or artificial snow.

And this business has become a huge industry, working a lot of economic wonders for many countries across the globe.

To begin with, cloud seeding has long been used to address water scarcity.

And to understand this, you could look at China, which has the world’s largest cloud seeding system. Its 'weather modification office' employs over 50,000 people whose job profile is to actually shoot silver iodide into clouds to make them rain.

But apart from creating jobs, China has also been trying to fight the economic losses from the water scarcity its northern region has been experiencing for nearly half a century.

You see, the Yangtze River, China’s longest river and the Yellow River, its second largest, have been its biggest sources of freshwater. This water actually comes from melting ice glaciers off the Tibetan plateau. But climate change-driven rising global temperatures meant that there wasn’t much snowcap left to create more fresh usable water. And that simply set off China’s northern provinces to a water crisis.

To solve that, China had a brainwave. Decades ago, it invested about $80 billion in something called the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. The aim was to transfer water from the Yangtze, which wasn’t as gravely affected by the water crisis to its northern regions. Lengthy tunnels would send water to the riverbed of the Yellow River in the north. And just so this water stayed in the northern regions, it also engaged cloud seeding systems to make it artificially rain in the area.

At the beginning of the water crisis, this water shortage actually cost China about $35 billion annually or 2.5 times the average annual losses caused by floods. And since cloud seeding can increase rainfall or snow by 5-15%, it may have helped China a little bit.

The only problem though?

China’s southern water sources may be drying up too. And if there isn’t enough water to form rain clouds, you can’t really induce artificial rain.

But China’s cloud seeding efforts aren’t just limited to making it rain so that people have water to drink and water their fields. In 2008, it also used the technique to keep rain away from the Beijing Olympics.

Yes! You read that right. It simply emptied the clouds beforehand by triggering downpours ahead of the opening ceremony. That’s how it ensured that the ceremony not just witnessed the bluest of skies but also gave China a bang for its buck. At least that's what they say happened.

And all of this has actually encouraged the country to expand its weather modification systems to make it artificially rain or snow over 5.5 million square kilometres by 2025.

But there’s another problem.

Hannele Korhonen, a Finnish scientist who worked on a cloud-seeding project in the UAE had a genuine doubt “There is X amount of water in the world. If you make the clouds rain in one place, is the water missed somewhere else?”


Okay, so cloud seeding can actually make clouds rain before they move on to another region. So it could actually be used as a war weapon.

And this isn’t a bizarre theory we came up with. In fact, during the Vietnam War in the 1970s, the US was accused of modifying the weather so that it could prolong the monsoons, soften the roads and cause landslides along roadways in enemy held territory.

So yeah, making it rain isn’t just an economic boon but can actually raise questions about which country owns what part of the sky. And we can’t really answer that unless international policies address it.

Until then…

Don't forget to share this story on WhatsApp, LinkedIn and X.

PS: The actual statistical results for cloud seeding does seem to be mixed however, and not all scientists think this works.

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