Who Owns the Clouds? The Adventures of the Chinese and Me in Changing the Weather

Photograph Source: Clément Chéné – CC BY 2.0

When Mark Twain joked that everybody talked about the weather but nobody did anything about it, he was right. But no more. For more than seventy years some people have been doing something about the weather though they haven’t gotten much press until lately. And I am one of them. I have worked on weather modification projects and I haven’t gotten much press either.

An article in the Guardian on December 3 was about climate change and it described the ways China is now trying to increase rainfall to cope with present and future water shortages. What really caught my eye was the scope of China’s undertaking, which is immense. It also caught my attention for personal reasons. The main method the Chinese are using is of course cloud seeding and that is something I have been involved in.

The article featured a photo of Chinese soldiers firing a cannon aimed at the sky—which is certainly in keeping with numerous articles about what is now described as China’s aggressive behavior. If you only looked at the headline and the photo you might think that now the Chinese are attacking even the clouds. The Chinese were firing rockets filled with either silver iodide or liquid nitrogen into clouds. Either substance will cause the cloud’s moisture to form water droplets. As it happens I was involved in this same activity years ago, although I did not use a cannon.

In the winter of 1981-1982 I was employed on a cloud seeding project in Libya. But we made use of airplanes, which is the most efficient means of cloud seeding since a weather radar can direct the plane to the areas of a storm with the greatest concentrations of moisture. The plane is equipped with a rack of flares under each wing and it releases two or three of the flares into those places—the flares containing the silver iodide look just like the flares the police set out around a traffic accident except the casing is an aluminum tube. I have made those too. I mention these details—in part—to assure you that although my degrees are in English and Arabic literature I know what I’m talking about.

The Chinese, I should add, also use planes, fleets of planes and other means also, a third method being ground burners that are connected to weather radars and computers which trigger their ignition. Burning a substance so the smoke rises up into the sky so as to increase the harvest.

It’s almost like a religion.

My dad who was, among other things, a meteorologist was the manager of the Libyan project and he had worked in Libya before, both on this sort of project and others. The goal of our project was to increase the rainfall over the main farming areas in the country. The largest area was in the Jebel al-Akhdar plateau northeast of Benghazi. The other was south of Tripoli near the city of Gharyan.

My job was to release the weather balloons that we used for forecasting. I had learned how to do that as a teenager tagging along on weekends with my dad when he managed a project studying storm patterns in the state of Washington. My job title for the Libyan project was chief observer—which is the most appropriate job title I have ever had. The job title is due to the fact that releasing weather balloons and collecting their data is called in the trade ‘making upper air observations.’ Weather balloons even with the use of weather satellites remain the main tool for making forecasts.

Libya was an adventure. I had never been out of the States except for brief trips across the border, once each to Canada and Mexico. And that was due to difficulties that had nothing to do with our project and were political in nature. Here too there is a rough parallel with China’s program.  Many of the difficulties that China is already confronting are not technical but political. But there is a difference between the political difficulties attending China’s massive weather modification program and the political difficulties that beset our project way back when. A brief history of cloud seeding will be helpful in understanding how weather modification can not only cause political problems but be affected by them also. It is the nature of cloud seeding. The weather affects everyone and changing it—or even attempting to change it—can always have political aspects.

Heroes of the weather

People were thinking about ways to change the weather about the time Twain was complaining about it. In 1891 Louis Gathmann suggested shooting liquid carbon dioxide into rain clouds to cause them to rain. Gathmann I should add was an engineer and inventor who is mostly remembered for inventing a cannon, a large howitzer which he named after himself. One method Gathmann proposed of getting the liquid carbon dioxide into the cloud was to fire it in an artillery shell just as the Chinese are doing today. Obviously this may also have been a means of boosting the sales of Gathmann Howitzers. A second proposed method, less dramatic and therefore nameless, was to send the substance aloft tied to a balloon.

The idea of doing what a short time earlier seemed like a pipedream out of Jules Vernes, changing the weather, spread quickly. During the 1930s, something called the Bergeron-Findeisen process theorized that supercooled water droplets present while ice crystals are released into rain clouds would cause rain. After the war Vincent Schaefer and Irving Langmuir while researching aircraft icing for General Electric confirmed the theory.[i] The two men made an unlikely team. Langmuir was a Nobel laureate, while Schaefer was self-educated. Langmuir had a more conventional career—if such can be said of a Nobel laureate. He got a BA in metallurgical engineering at Columbia University and obtained his PhD in chemistry at the University of Göttingen. His work at GE led to the invention of the vacuum tube which would play a critical role in the development of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. He was also a pilot.

Schaefer had even broader interests than Langmuir. As a youth he was interested in the archaeology of the native Americans in upstate New York. He also helped create hiking paths in the Adirondacks and an adult education program in natural history—all of this while still in his twenties. He took an interest also in geology and devised a way of slicing rock so thin as to make them translucent. Using some of these specimens he built a circular window in memory of his parents in their church in the town in the Adirondacks where they spent their summers. My dad knew Schaefer and he told me that he was one of the foremost meteorologists in the world.

Working with another GE researcher Bernard Vonnegut, Schaefer’s work on the possibility of making rain or snow progressed. On 13 November 1946 he caused snow to fall near Mount Greylock in western Massachusetts, after he dumped six pounds of dry ice into a cloud from a plane. Science fiction had become science.

In the thirties H.G. Wells had visited the GE laboratories and Langmuir had suggested he write a story about a form of ice stable at temperatures above freezing. Wells never did anything about it. But after the war while Vonnegut was also working at GE, his brother Kurt was also employed by GE in their public relations department. Bernard told his younger brother Kurt of the story idea Langmuir had given Well. In 1963, seventeen years later, Cat’s Cradle was published. The dictator of a Caribbean island Papa Monzano commits suicide by swallowing a piece of a substance called Ice-Nine. Ice-Nine acts exactly as the various substance in cloud seeding. It freezes water instantly on contact. When Papa Monzano swallows a piece of it his body is immediately frozen. Later a plane carrying Monzano’s frozen corpse crashes into the sea and all the world’s oceans are instantly frozen. Science had become science fiction.

The Chinese and weather modification

China’s weather modification plan now involves a vast amount of its territory. The program to increase rain and snow will cover more than 2 million square miles—that is 55% of its land mass. Their program goes far beyond merely increasing rainfall for agriculture. The Chinese hope to restore ecosystems, to minimize the losses to weather calamities like floods and typhoons and even to revitalize rural areas where the population has dwindled due to urban migration.

This ambitious project requires large investments in a variety of areas. More aircraft, more rocket launchers, more computing capacity and so on. While some of this is simply an addition to already existing equipment and capacity, other money is being spent on developing new devices. Part of the plan developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is to install thousands of chambers on the Tibetan plateau. The technology is the same as that of the racks of flares on airplanes. The chambers will burn solid fuels to release silver iodide into the atmosphere in volumes large enough to cause rain and snow.

My admiration for the bold ambition of the Chinese venture must be tempered however. Even a much smaller cloud seeding project caused damage—due to its very success. In Hood River Oregon a cloud seeding project in the winter of 1974-1975 brought a drenching rain that caused street collapses and mudslides.[ii] But even short of such damage, cloud seeding can create political problems. When it is successful cloud seeding is akin to wringing water from a sponge. So there is at least the possibility of ‘stealing’ water from areas downwind of the operation. This issue has arisen in the US and has limited the use of cloud seeding in some areas for fear of lawsuits. Already scientists in Taiwan have warned that Chinese activities could lead to charges of ‘rain stealing.’[iii] The title of a 1948 article in the Stanford Law Review was “Who Owns the Clouds?” However the very scope of the Chinese activities involves much greater risks than insurance losses and lawsuits. Like war.

Chinese efforts to ease water shortages in the north of China could create shortages for its neighbors. Its activities are concentrated in the Tibetan plateau. The sources of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong rivers all lie in that area, and those rivers are the principal source of water for 3.4 billion people or 46 per cent of the world’s population.

India expressed its concerns about the Chinese program some time ago. In 2018 an Indian scientific organization the Observer Research Foundation published an article on the issue: “‘Weather War’: A latest addition to the Sino-India conundrum?”[iv]

Needless to say, this project only adds to the differences existing between the two countries that for some time have led to intermittent border clashes. There is speculation by Indian scientists and authorities that China’s activities have already disrupted rainfall patterns in India. There is even worry that China will make use of cloud seeding to limit Indian troop movements on its border with China. If this sounds farfetched the US did just that in the Vietnam War.

In March 1967, the US military launched Operation Popeye. The goal of the operation, which lasted until July 1972, was to extend the monsoon season over North Vietnam, especially over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The operation was a success though how much is debatable. The operation was carried out by the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron—whose slogan was ‘Make Mud, Not War.’ They claimed that in the areas targeted the monsoon season was extended by an average of 30 to 45 days.

Brown paper bags

What follows may seem something of a tangent. One of the most common criticisms my students have made in the their SCOQs (Student Course Opinion Questionnaires) is that I go off on tangents. But it is impossible for me discuss what I know about cloud seeding and the Libyan project without bringing up matters that might seem of purely personal significance. My time in Libya changed the course of my life.

The company my dad and I worked for was called the Colorado International Corporation—which I now think of as Connivance International for reasons that will soon become clear. CIC was based in Boulder, Colorado and I had worked for the company on similar projects in the summers while I was in college. When I took the Libyan job I was living in Portland and I was unemployed—by design. It was in April of 1981 when my dad called me and out of the blue said to me, “How would you like to work in Libya.” I said yes without a moment’s thought. I was a chief observer waiting to happen.

I should add at this point two more things. The first thing is I had hardly seen my dad in the previous eight or nine years. He was almost always working in the Middle East or Africa then. And when he was in the States for a few days he was in Boulder, while I was living in Portland or Seattle most of that time. The second thing is that in those years he had added another line of work. He was now also a spy.

I had drawn that conclusion some time well before that day in April when he called me. It was based on the places he was working in those years. The Congo, Yemen, Somalia to name only a few. Was it possible the Congo didn’t get enough rain?

In July I went to Boulder and started working again for CIC shipping equipment for the project. And there were signs there that might have caused me concern about CIC. There was a new solar energy division which employed at least a dozen people—two-thirds of CIC’s employees at that point—although the division had no contracts and ergo was earning no money.

The first sign that there might be something going on besides weather modification and solar energy was when I ran into a pilot hanging around the CIC office with whom I’d crossed paths before. The first time I met him he had introduced himself to me as ‘Fast Fred.’ When I asked Larry, the head of CIC, what Fast Fred’s connection with CIC was, he told me he was an investor. I already had a pretty good idea of why he was fast and the news that he was an investor seemed to confirm it.

Then—just about that same time—I went into work one Saturday morning and found a razor and a mirror left on a desk by one of the new solar energy employees. Apparently he was working late Friday night and ran out of energy. Which didn’t surprise me. Coke was everywhere then. Every rummy was doing it. The only thing that surprised me was his carelessness, leaving them in ‘plain view’ as they say. That same month, August, the US Navy shot down two Libyan jets over the Gulf of Sirte. Reagan was spoiling with a fight with Gaddafi whom he called “the mad dog of the Middle East.” My dad who was in Tripoli at the time called and said not to worry. The Libyans he worked with told him it would have no effect on our project. It was business as usual.

So Fast Fred, razors and mirrors, the Libyan jets—I filed all of these things away. I was focused on the big picture as I saw it.

My dad and I went to Tripoli in early October—about a week after Gaddafi had declared a three-day national holiday to celebrate the assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6. My dad was to be based in Tripoli when the project got underway while I would work in the small town of al-Marj in eastern Libya. Here I should add that on the flight from JFK to Madrid I said to him after a few drinks had loosened my tongue, “You must be working for them.” He said, “Yes, and that’s all I’m going to tell you. You don’t need to know more and it’s better if you don’t.”

When we got to Tripoli my dad told me not to expect to be paid for a month or two because CIC’s bank account had no money in it. And there wouldn’t any money in it until the first of November when Libya paid its first installment for the project. Fine, I said. We were living on per diem in Libya and our salaries were being paid in the States.

As I say, none of these things fazed me. Since the day in April when my dad called my whole focus and mood were shaped by the prospect of getting out of the US. And when we got to Tripoli I was elated. I felt like my dad had gotten me out of prison. He had gotten me out of prison. I knew for me the game was henceforth different. I was never going to work at a stupid boring job again. That was over. I knew it.

The first month and a half things went well and all the things I’ve mentioned that might have posed questions receded. It was easy to forget all about them because there was almost no news of the outside world in Libya, and especially in al-Marj.

Then in late November I went to Malta for a week’s break. The third morning I was there, the headline on the International Herald Tribune was “Libyan Hit Squad Enters US to Assassinate Reagan.”[v] I called my mom in Boulder and asked what was going on. She told me it had been the first story on the CBS Evening News the day before.

She was very angry—she knew the story was undoubtedly false—but it promised to throw their lives into chaos again. Again, because the 1974 civil war in Cyprus had done so. That year they were to move there where my dad would have a position with the WMO. When the war broke out they were en route to Seattle to say goodbye and store the things not already shipped to Cyprus. Three weeks later my dad was in the Congo and my mom was looking for a place in Seattle for her and my little brother.

After I talked to my mom I called my dad in Tripoli and asked if he heard any news. He said no. I told him that we were the lead story. He just said hmm. And I said I would tell him more when I got back.

When I got back to Tripoli two people, John and Mike who were based in al-Marj with me, were also there. They had brought the al-Marj plane to swap it with the Tripoli plane—which meant I could fly back with them to al-Marj. They were both pilots but Mike was also a mechanic and the planes were swapped every two weeks so Mike could do the routine maintenance. When the four of us went to dinner I didn’t say anything about the news. After dinner when my dad and I were alone I briefed him so to speak.

The next morning we all went out to the airport. Just as John, Mike and I were about to get in the plane my dad asked me to come around to the other side of the plane. He handed me a brown paper bag and told me there were 3000 dinars in it—about $8000. He told me to buy five open tickets for the five of us in al-Marj, Benghazi to Tripoli one-way on Libyan Air. He said if we had to leave in a hurry he would call me and say, “It looks like we’re going to have a day and a half of fair weather.” Then I should get everybody down to Benghazi airport on the first flight to Tripoli. He would handle everything from there.

The day after I got back to al-Marj Reagan made it illegal for Americans to travel to Libya. I will not go into all that followed. If you wish to know more about that contact me and enclose a SASE. Suffice to say it threw our project into chaos and cost me twenty thousand dollars in lost wages to boot—I was paid more for that work than I would ever make again in my life.

As it happened I was in Libya for two more months with my suitcase half packed. My dad and I left at the end of January. Larry had replaced me with a Spaniard to appease the State Department. He had fired my dad because he asked too many questions about money.

After I got back to the States I hung around Boulder waiting to get paid. My dad had left instructions at the bank in Denver that they were to call him as soon as the last Libyan payment came in. The bank called one morning in April. We jumped in the car and went to Denver. I came back with about $14,000 in a brown paper bag.

It was around that same time that Fast Fred was arrested. A DEA plane had tracked him flying in from Mexico with a load of cocaine. At first I thought it was coincidental, but it wasn’t. When  Larry fired my dad, CIC and Fast Fred lost their cover. On that day Fast Fred was not fast enough. I wish the Chinese the best of luck.


[i] Ley, Willy. “Let’s Do Something About the Weather. For Your Information.” Galaxy Science Fiction. February 1961 pp. 72–84.

[ii] From KSL Newsradio. July 28, 2021

[iii] James Griffiths. CNN. December 3, 2020. The concern of India that China may also use cloud seeding to affect troop movements on the Tibetan border is also found in this article.

[iv] Roy, Aparna. “‘Weather War’: A latest addition to the Sino-India conundrum?” Terra Nova. August 22, 2018

[v] The source of the story which was first published in the Washington Post was an Iranian Israeli double agent, Manucher Ghorbanifar. Ghorbanifar was born in Iran to a Jewish family. In 2000 the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs published an article that identified Ghorbanifar as the source of the hit squad story. He said that he made it up, “to hurt Libya, an enemy of Israel.” The Iran-Contra scheme was also Ghorbanifar’s idea, even though prior to the plan the CIA had issued a “burn notice” on Ghorbanifar, meaning nothing he said was to be trusted. And finally he was one of the sources for the Iraq WMD story.

Daniel Beaumont teaches Arabic language & literature and other courses at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Slave of Desire: Sex, Love & Death in the 1001 Nights and Preachin’ the Blues: The Life & Times of Son House. He can be contacted at: daniel.beaumont@rochester.edu