Cloud seeding: What is it and does it work?
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Cloud seeding: What is it and does it work?

Desperate times call for desperate measures and the hazardous haze that has been blanketing Singapore and parts of Malaysia as a result of forest fires in Indonesia could well be considered a desperate situation.

We know that events like “Hazepocalypse” are preventable. Illegal slash and burn land clearing methods are regularly performed as part of the poorly controlled palm industry and small time farming. If the irresponsible, greedy behavior of major palm oil corporations is controlled, there will be less haze, fewer fires, fewer health problems and public outrage will diminish. But what to do in the short term? The Indonesian government’s answer is a bit of geo engineering in the form of cloud seeding.

Controlling the weather sounds a bit James Bond villain-y, doesn’t it? But cloud seeding is no exact science. We’re not even really sure how well it works or if it’s even worth it. Predicting the weather is hard enough, but controlling it still rests firmly in the realm of science fiction. But so did wireless internet and tiny mobile phones not too many years ago. On the other hand, as is the case with climate change, humans have been influencing the weather for years and cloud seeding is one of those ways. It may not always work, but some think it’s worth a try.

Cloud seeding involves spraying clouds with chemical substances in order to stimulate the formation of ice crystals, which then become sufficiently heavy to fall. It basically speeds up the production of precipitation.

The biggest system for cloud seeding is in China. The Chinese government uses it to combat drought and battle pollution. It has also been used in Indonesia to prevent flooding. Cloud seeding itself has come under scrutiny due to its use of silver iodide, a mildly toxic heavy metal. Dry ice (frozen CO2) and liquid propane are other chemicals sometimes used.

Indonesia’s latest cloud seeding efforts may in fact be paying off.


An aircraft with cloud-seeding equipment managed to unleash rain over Bengkalis district on Sumatra Island late Saturday, where some of the biggest fires are raging, Indonesian Disaster Management Agency official Agus Wibowo said.

They’ve also been “water bombing” some of the affected areas in an attempt to quell some of the blazes, which also may have helped conditions in Singapore.

As far as the culprits are concerned, at least 14 companies are being investigated in connection with the fires. Yet Indonesia’s director of Forest Fire Control claims that the fires are more the fault of farmers who start the blazes, which then spread to large plantations. Read more about that in Singapore’s Straits Times.

I can’t say if I’m pro or anti cloud seeding. It may seem like a bit of reckless meddling sometimes, but I totally understand wanting to control the weather. We’ve been doing rain dances and other useless acts for thousands of years, so why not use a little science to seed a few clouds to see if it works? Desperate times indeed.


Wouldn't it be nice? Pic: Megan McCormick (Flickr CC)