Thursday, May 15, 2008

Strange Weather

The weather has been acting rather peculiar these last few weeks in Beijing. From day to day you never know what types of climatic phenomenon, natural or otherwise, are going to take place; despite, or perhaps partially the result of, the government’s attempts to completely control it.

via my flickr page

We are coming ever closer to the future. One day we might reach it. Or maybe we have. The future is now. Rainmaking used to be the stuff of myth and legend. Traveling showmen used to claim they could make it rain in the old days of the US before the practice reached its peak during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s. Ancient tribes used to perform rain dances. Today, in Beijing, people shoot rockets into the sky and down come the rains.

"Artificial precipitation operations” (aka
cloud-seeding)are performed in which a strange concoction of silver iodine, liquid nitrogen and other seeding agents are shot into nascent rain clouds, triggering rainfall. This technique was developed in the 1940’s and used by the US military in the Vietnam War to slow down Vietnamese military trucks during "Operation Popeye.” It has apparently been used for decades in China but the pace is picking up in order to clean the skies for the Olympics. It has definitely been raining more than usual these last few weeks. Most of it, I assume, is “rocket rain”, as I like to call the synthetic stuff.

Beijing Rain Artillery

If that is not enough, government officials are planning a “cloud busting” operation in order to prevent rain from occurring during the opening day ceremonies. The first cloudbusters were invented by Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. He called it an “Orgone shooter” and it manipulated cosmic orgone energy which was supposed to make clouds produce rain and dissipate. I guess this is how meteorology got its libido back.

Reich and his "Cloud Buster"

For Beijing, meteorologists are currently predicting a 47% chance of rain, according to Urbane, a free-monthly newsletter in Beijing. Hmmm…50-50 chance. I could have predicted that also. Right now “100 people and three aircraft will be ready to manipulate the weather” during the Olympics. According to Zhang Qiang, head of the city’s weather modification office, “Preventing heavy rain is very difficult.” You think??

rocket rain acid rain tornado rain earthquake rain sandstorm rain cyclone hurricane freezing rain snow sleet drizzle hail convection rain purple rain

It used to be that you could look at the sky and from the color, shape, size, and frequency of the cloud formations you could tell what type of weather was coming. “Looks like rain” you’d say, or “looks like tornado weather,” or “guess what kids, it’s going to snow tonight!” And you would probably be right so you would take the necessary precautions, etc. But the way it is now, at least in Beijing, you don’t know what is going to happen. The signals have gotten crossed and pattern recognition is nearly impossible.

From what I have experienced in Beijing the last few months, sandstorms, earthquakes, and rocket rain all start the same way: the sky turns a strange pinkish-orange color, the wind becomes ferocious, lightning and thunder pick up, and at that point anything can happen. Yesterday a strange rain came upon us late in the afternoon, prompting an email conversation between me and my girlfriend that went a little something like this:

Me: that's really cool! I forwarded it to my teammates. it is looking scarier and scarier these last few minutes—I think they are shooting rockets again.
Her: I doubt. It maybe the signs of earthquake!
Me: I know, but let's just hope they are rockets, it is safer for us, at least in the short term.
Her: Babe, do you think I should go home after work or stay in SOHO
Me: I think it is safe to go home, but do what you think you need to do. Are there any warnings about earthquakes yet? I personally think it is rocket rain.
Her: Hmm, ok.

Rescue operation in Sichuan Province after Monday's earthquake, via NYT

It’s easy to become very glum about the situation. As I was thinking about it this afternoon, I was reminded of Philip K. Dick’s groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep, the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner. In Dick’s dystopian vision of the future daily radioactive fallout has forced mankind to evacuate Earth and settle on Mars. The first sign of the fallout, which appeared like a dense fog, was the extinction of owls and other birds. The humans that remained on Earth ran the risk of becoming “special”—mentally handicapped or impotent—from the radiation. If you were to take a fatalist attitude you might reckon we’ll all end up that way someday—not from the radiation but from the rain. Any chance of rain might send us running to our fallout/bomb/earthquake shelters because we will never know what to expect! The anticipated precipitation could be our salvation or our demise.

Personally, because I’m somewhat utopian, I like to think of an alternative scenario for the future—a more positive scenario: A drought-less future. A verdant future. A future with clean air. Where rockets are used to bring joy, happiness, and good health rather than destruction. Where our motto might be, like the popeye soldiers used to say back in Vietnam, "Make Mud, Not War."

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