How to fake the weather

By MSN UK News Press Association
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Lorry loads of snow have had to be imported from across Canada for this year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Snow stockpiled at higher altitudes has been driven down towards sea level. Bales of hay have even been used to provide enough of a solid foundation for some of the race courses.

"We simply cannot have a start that is affected by weather," said organising committee chief John Furlong. "What we have to do is that no matter what happens we have the back-ups in place." But faking the weather for sport events is nothing new; as Furlong himself was careful to point out, the importing of snow "has happened at every Olympics".

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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The People's Republic of China has deployed more dramatic techniques for faking the weather. Several times recently it has resorted to cloud seeding techniques: a process where chemicals are fired into the atmosphere to control the condensation of moisture and either create or prevent rain and snow. This was tried during the 2008 Olympics in an effort to disperse pollution from the air over Beijing. A more successful attempt to fake the weather came in February 2009 when China launched a number of iodide sticks into the skies over Beijing to induce snowfall after four months of drought. The resulting blizzard lasted three days.

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One singularly unsuccessful attempt at faking the weather occurred in Russia in June 2008. Air force planes were seeding clouds above Moscow to prevent rain spoiling a public holiday. However one of the sacks of cement failed to pulverise at the correct altitude, instead plummeting to earth and straight through the roof of a house, creating a hole of about 80-100cm. Nobody was injured, but according to Reuters the homeowner refused an offer of 50,000 roubles, saying she would prefer to sue for damages and compensation for moral suffering.

It has become common practice for the Russian air force to send up to 12 cargo planes into the skies above Moscow to seed clouds with silver iodide, liquid nitrogen and cement powder. Weather specialists said the cement's failure to turn to powder was the first such mistake in 20 years.

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Cloud seeding has been used to increase rainfall in the Australian state of Tasmania for more than four decades. Recently a regulated programme of seeding was introduced to run every year from the end of April to the end of October. A number of regions are to be targeted that would otherwise have a tendency to suffer from prolonged drought. The seeding is being co-ordinated by a renewable energy firm, Hydro Tasmania.

AP Photo/Matthew Brown
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A five-year study is underway in the American state of Wyoming to see if cloud seeding produces an increase in snowfall. Scientists from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research have designed the experiment to see if a prolonged attempt at manipulating the climate can provide residents of the state with a low-cost source of fresh water. A 10 per cent increase in snowfall in the target areas is estimated to provide between 130,000 and 260,000 acre-feet of water in additional supplies each spring.

Wyoming has experienced years of drought, and anything that could guarantee to increase its stock of water would be hugely beneficial. "People are sometimes concerned about changing what they think is natural weather," said NCAR project scientist Dan Breed, "but studies have shown that in some areas we're already affecting clouds unintentionally through increases in airborne particulates and other pollution. If cloud seeding is shown to work, it may help counteract the effects of air pollution as well as ease those of natural drought cycles."

Barry Batchelor/PA Archive/Press Association Images
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The Eden Project in Cornwall is a spectacular example of faking the weather indoors. The site contains the world's largest greenhouse, the Rainforest Biome, which contains tropical plants including banana trees and coffee plants. The Mediterranean Biome is a slightly smaller structure and contains temperate plants such as olives and grape vines. Various other domes complete the project, all made from steel frames and layers of thin UV-transparent plastic called ethylene tetrafluoroethylene.

The Eden Project will celebrate its 10th anniversary in March 2011.

AP Photo/Keystone, Walter Bieri
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The future

In September 2008 the Royal Society published a collection of papers proposing possible solutions to halt climate change. One suggested that clouds could be artificially created over the earth's oceans to limit the strength of the sun's rays. Another proposed spraying ozone-depleting aerosols in the atmosphere.

"It's not clear which of these geoengineering technologies might work," conceded Society president Martin Rees, "still less what environmental and social impacts they might have, or whether it could ever be prudent or politically acceptable to adopt any of them. But it is worth devoting effort to clarifying both the feasibility and any potential downsides of the various options."