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The issue with using technology to ‘make it rain’

One of the dreams of our ancestors was to control the weather which has been as pernicious as anything else in our history, causing natural disasters, contributing to famines, and deciding wars. But what was once left to the whims of Jupiter, Horus or Thor is now in our control. But, how exactly have we gained this power? And what should we do with it?

Hail cannons are designed to disrupt hail formation by sending shockwaves into the sky and have been at the centre of the weather modification debate. The machines are automated to fire at specific times and break up hail so that rain falls instead, implemented by Volkswagen (VW) to prevent hail damage to its newly manufactured cars. But, controversy has arisen as Mexican farmers have said that they clear the sky of rain, causing droughts during Mexico’s monsoon season, filing to sue VW for €3.2m.

Hail cannons are designed to disrupt hail formation by sending shockwaves into the sky and have been at the centre of the weather modification debate

Other farmers have also used the technology to protect their crops, but clearly, these unforeseen consequences can negate any benefits gained. The World Meteorological Organisation endorsed a review describing hail cannons as “a waste of money and effort” with no benefits other than “the emotional satisfaction of the gunners, who have fired at the enemy.” So, as cathartic as it may be to shoot down our problems, the logistics of hail cannons make them a non-starter.

Perhaps cloud seeding is the saviour we’ve been waiting for. Cloud seeding consists of spraying chemicals that have an ice crystal structure into clouds to increase precipitation. As atmospheric science Professor William Cotton says, cloud seeding can increase precipitation by 8% so its effectiveness already makes it better than hail cannons. Though cloud seeding sounds like science fiction, it was discovered in 1946 and has since been used in 56 countries for staving off droughts, preventing hailstorms and clear foggy airports. China used it to increase rainfall before the Olympics so that it wouldn’t rain during the Olympics and are developing a cloud seeding project to increase precipitation across the Tibetan plateau.

The World Meteorological Organisation endorsed a review describing hail cannons as “a waste of money and effort” with no benefits other than “the emotional satisfaction of the gunners, who have fired at the enemy”

As our climate gets warmer, and weather more erratic, cloud seeding has become a potential mitigating technology against droughts for crops and water stress. This is the motivation for China who want to increase their freshwater supplies in the face of shortages across Asia. However, ethical debates continue to rage about cloud seeding.

First, the potential for misuse is rife. Cloud seeding has been researched by the militaries of China, the US, and Russia to weaponise natural disasters against enemy states. From the moment of its birth, governments have been a bit too interested in adding tornados to their air forces – Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle was partly inspired the US military becoming interested in his brother’s work on cloud seeding. How should we use this technology, and how do we enforce regulations for it?

Cloud seeding has been researched by the militaries of China, the US, and Russia to weaponise natural disasters against enemy states

There are also concerns about unforeseen side effects. Back in 1915, a desperate San Diego hired ‘rainmaker’ Charles Hatfield to attract clouds for rain but skipped town after flooding the area with 30 inches of rain in a month, destroying homes and lives (though he would later audaciously return to ask for payment). And even as cloud seeding developed into a more rigorous scientific practice, this hasn’t prevented such disasters. The General Electric corporation seeded a hurricane which only changed its direction and wreaked havoc in Georgia. And recently in 2009, China caused sudden temperature drops that brought local traffic to a halt, causing massive jams. Is the risk worth the reward? And how certain must people be to use cloud seeding?

But most importantly, are we effectively dealing with the problem? Just as paracetamol stops the feeling of pain without curing the cause, Silvia Ribeiro is concerned that “we control the symptoms instead of modifying what is producing the effect.” These droughts should be a call for more radical action against climate change, not patching up our problems with weather modifying technologies. Technology is a wonderful tool, but that’s all it is. And tools are only effective when we are being thoughtful about our approach with them.

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