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Cloudbusting Means It Never Rains ... Or It Pours

Published: April 1, 2003 (Issue # 856)



  • The Geophysics Observatory's Okunev.
    Photo: Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times

It's hardly surprising that most self-respecting St. Petersburg residents treasure their umbrellas so highly, as the city's climate has been a problem since its foundation almost 300 years ago. The main problem is precipitation: It rains in fall, drizzles in spring, snows in winter, and not even a sunny summer day is immune from a torrential downpour.

Sometimes, however, the clouds can hold off for weeks. During the fortnight of the Goodwill Games in summer 1994, for example, the sun miraculously shone all the time - a rather weird, dim light, as though through some fog or shroud. And the first drop of rain from a thunderstorm hit the ground just a minute after the closing ceremony.

"Yes, we worked hard at that time," said Sergei Okunev of the St. Petersburg Geophysics Observatory, one of Russia's top experts on the practicalities of cloud-seeding technology, or cloudbusting.

During the Goodwill Games, Okunev said, specially equipped airplanes were kept busy making sure it didn't rain by seeding the clouds with certain chemical reagents that either induce or inhibit precipitation - in other words, to make it rain sooner or later.

However, he said, cloudbusting is a far cry from the stereotypical image of North American native chiefs banging on wardrums and hollering at the sky. Today's cloudbusters use various chemical reagents, such as iodized silver, liquid nitrogen and solid carbonic acid, either individually or in combinations.

"It needs really experienced meteorological experts," Okunyev said. "They have to be able to diagnose the type of cloud, its distance from the desired or undesired location, and how much reagent is needed to get the necessary effect."

Attempting to control the weather is not a new phenomenon here - Soviet scientists began investigating ways to influence events in the 1930s, following an order by Joseph Stalin. The researchers tackled questions including regulating rainfall, warding off hail, dispersing fog and preventing avalanches.

"There were quite a number of areas in which those technologies were in high demand," said Viktor Petrov, deputy head of Atmosphere Technologies Agency ATTECH in Moscow, naming "agriculture, aviation, traffic, hydro-electric power, forestry and city life."

Even with dozens of scientists at meteorological laboratories all across what was then the Soviet Union, it took years to accumulate the necessary know-how to, for example, disperse hail-bearing clouds threatening the entire grape harvest in Moldova and Georgia, redirect rainclouds to drought-hit agricultural areas, or disperse fog from around airports or large road junctions.

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