In this 2007 file photo, an artillery operator stands next to an artillery used to seed clouds to
induce rain at a station of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau in Beijing, China.

Chinese Cloud Seeding Causes Man to Explode—Twice

December 17, 2008 05:27 PM
by Isabel Cowles
A rogue cloud-seeding shell killed a Chinese man and then blew up his corpse a few days later. The incident has raised concerns about the safety of cloud seeding.

Man Explodes Twice

Three years ago, Wang Diange of Inner Mongolia was overseeing the funeral of a relative when he died in an apparent explosion that set the house on fire. Because the incident took place during a heavy rainstorm, Wang’s family members assumed that lightning was responsible.

A few days later, Wang’s remains were being creamated when they exploded in the crematorium, blowing the doors off the oven. Among Wang’s ashes, authorities discovered a small piece of metal, which metallurgists later determined to be part of a shell casing containing silver iodide, a substance used in cloud seeding.

Cloud seeding is frequently employed in China as a means of controlling precipitation. On the day Wang was struck, cloud seeding had taken place to turn a hailstorm into rain to protect the local tobacco crop.

Investigators concluded that an unexploded shell from the seeding had struck Wang’s body during the rainstorm, causing both explosions.

Background: Cloud seeding and its dangers

Cloud seeding is a means of modifying weather patterns by sending chemicals into the atmosphere that induce or suppress precipitation. China has been engaging in the practice for years, shooting shells with silver iodide into the atmosphere to encourage or prevent rainfall for farmers, fight fires and relieve drought.

Cloud seeding is a controversial practice and its benefits are often difficult to track. Scientists cannot definitively say how much rain would have fallen if seeding did not take place, and large storms are often unaffected by seeding attempts.

The United States, which experimented with cloud seeding at various points during the 20th century, has since moved away from the process.

Asia Times Online reported in 2007 that cloud seeding shells and rockets sometimes go astray, “damaging homes and injuring inhabitants.” The publication notes that, in 2006, a pedestrian in Chongqing was killed by part of a rain cannon after it misfired. In addition, some Chinese citizens have expressed concern over the environmental and health ramifications of cloud seeding.

An article on the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Research Program Web site suggests that “Cloud-seeding technology raises some concerns that adding chemicals to clouds would pollute the air, water or earth.” However, organizations that support cloud seeding argue that the quantities of silver iodide used are too small to be toxic.

Related Topic: China takes aim at the weather during the Olympics

This summer, China vowed to keep the Olympic Games sunny by using cloud seeding. Chinese officials monitored the skies with the help of weather-forecasting satellites, enlisting more than “50,000 people, 6,781 artillery guns and 4,110 rocket launchers to help blast away any rainy Olympic day,” The New York Times Olympics blog reported a few weeks before the Games began.

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