Cloud Seeding: Why make it rain?

The South Korean government carried out its first artificial rain experiment of the year in late January. The trial was conducted by the Korea Meteorological Administration and the Ministry of Environment over the Yellow Sea. The results of this attempt were underwhelming, producing little more than a weak mist. Although the experiment has been reported […]

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Residents wade through a flooded street due to continuous rains caused by tropical depression Josie in Marikina, east of Manila on July 22, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS

March 1, 2019

The South Korean government carried out its first artificial rain experiment of the year in late January. The trial was conducted by the Korea Meteorological Administration and the Ministry of Environment over the Yellow Sea. The results of this attempt were underwhelming, producing little more than a weak mist.

Although the experiment has been reported as a “failure” the purpose of these operations isn’t necessarily to produce rain every time, but rather to acquire data, fine-tune the process and find out if artificial rain can even be reliably stimulated. The KMA carried out 12 experiments in 2018 and has 14 more trials planned for 2019.

The data gathered by these trials will be used alongside information obtained from the 54 South Korean artificial rain experiments that have taken place since 2010.

How does it work?

Artificial rain, or cloud seeding as it’s sometimes called, sounds like something out of science fiction. It involves injecting existing clouds with chemicals like silver iodide, dry ice or salt powder to encourage the formation of ice crystals that then, if all goes to plan, turn into precipitation.

In 2017, South Korea spent $14.4 million to purchase an airplane dedicated exclusively to these trials.

South Korea isn’t the only country that makes use of this convoluted-seeming process—there are about 37 other countries running cloud-seeding operations of their own.

What problem is it meant to solve?

In the past, artificial rain has been used as an attempt to cope with severe drought. And it’s a relatively old technique. Australia, for example, has been experimenting with cloud-seeding as a drought-ending mechanism since 1947—with limited success, it should be noted.

But South Korea is not experiencing a drought. Instead, officials hope that artificial rain can be used as a tool for combating fine dust air pollution.

The fine dust problem has become a major driver of policy in South Korea within the past year. Moon Jae-in has said that tackling the issue is a primary focus of his administration, and the government has undertaken a variety of measures in response.

The South Korean government has vowed to purchase only eco-friendly vehicles for public transportation in the future and to replace all public transportation vehicles running on diesel by 2030. Old diesel vehicles have been banned from roads, and the government has taken steps to limit operations, or shut down power plants during the months when fine dust levels spike.

Artificial rain as a pollution amelioration tool isn’t a new idea. China is one of the most foremost cloud-seeding nations in the world. In 2011 alone, the country spent $150 million on one regional artificial program—the country uses cloud-seeding for the purposes of increasing grain harvests, and for improving air quality. China’s method of choice for cloud-seeding is to shoot rounds of the necessary chemicals into the sky, sometimes using rocket launchers.

Another of the most polluted countries in the world, India, has also been toying with the idea of adopting cloud-seeding, but, somewhat ironically India’s weather has made artificial rain operations tricky.

Despite long history of weather manipulation, the actual results of rain creation are inconclusive. After all, how can you tell the difference between rain that was induced, and rain that would have fallen anyway, given time?

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