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2018-11-23 13:14:24

The world’s largest projected weather-control system is being roundly criticized by China’s meteorologists and atmospheric scientists, according to an article published Thursday on ScienceNet.cn, a website affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Sky River — a project for transferring air saturated with water vapor from China’s verdant southern regions to its arid north — was conceived in 2015 by Tsinghua University, Qinghai University, and Qinghai province’s meteorological bureau. With information from remote-sensing satellites that track the movements of clouds, Sky River aims to influence precipitation and other weather patterns through artificial means — by releasing chemicals from airplanes to induce showers over farmland, for example, or moving water from the Yangtze River to the more northern Yellow River.

According to the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, an institute under the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the large-scale artificial rain experiment will launch its first batch of satellites by 2020. “In the long run, the system will divert 5 billion cubic meters of water annually,” said Wang Guangqian, head of the Sky River research team and president of Qinghai University, according to a 2016 report.

Since then, however, critics of the Sky River project have lambasted the undertaking. “This program is an absurd illusion with zero feasibility,” Lu Hancheng, a professor in the College of Meteorology and Oceanography at the National University of Defense Technology, told ScienceNet.cn, adding that it’s impossible to influence precipitation on such a scale.

In a 2016 essay, Wang nonetheless described Sky River’s “highly structured water conveyance system” as a “recent discovery” made by his research group — a claim disputed by Du Jun, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C. Du told ScienceNet.cn that the idea of creating an “atmospheric river” was first proposed in the early ’90s by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In late 2015, the Sky River project was accepted by a state key laboratory at Qinghai University, which hoped to incorporate it into its research on the ecosystem of Sanjiangyuan — the region where the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong rivers meet.

From the beginning, the project saw tremendous investment. In 2016 and 2017, the two participating universities and the provincial government altogether allocated 53 million yuan (then $8.1 million) to the Qinghai University laboratory. As a “national key research and development” initiative, the project received a 3 million yuan grant from the central government in November 2017.

According to Tsinghua University’s official website, an inaugural meeting for the Sky River research team and a cohort of international experts was held in July at the university’s campus in Beijing. Notably, Wu Guoxiong and Sun Jixing — described to Sixth Tone on Thursday as “the only two people with a specialist’s knowledge of the project” by a staff member from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences — criticized Sky River openly and bluntly in ScienceNet.cn’s article.

“Scientifically, our knowledge of the physical processes of rain is limited; techniques for interfering with cloud formation are not advanced,” Sun said. “As scientists, we are responsible for educating both policymakers and the public so that the correct decisions are made.”

The majority of the current Sky River research team is reportedly composed of water experts, despite the fact that Zhong Dejue, a researcher with the project, said two years ago that more meteorologists would be brought onboard. Lu, the meteorology professor, told The Beijing News on Thursday that of the dozens of atmospheric experts in the country he has spoken with, none see the project as feasible.

“We must not waste our nation’s resources so wantonly and in doing so ignore the urgent need to improve people’s livelihoods,” said Lu.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: IC)