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26-Aug-2016 04:09
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In The Spotlight

Olympic officials organize the games, but can they organize the weather?

By Wu Chong

In a dry city like Beijing, summer raindrops are a blessing for locals. But with the Olympics starting today, rain is the last thing for which Beijingers are praying.

Worried that an untimely downpour could disrupt the opening ceremonies-- to be held in the open-air "Bird's Nest" stadium-- officials at the Beijing Olympic Weather Service Center have dispatched security lines of weather technicians outside the city, ready to "blast" the clouds with silver iodide at a moment's notice.

Beijing's "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium, under construction in September 2007.

If cloud seeding doesn't work, they are also ready to pepper potential rain clouds with silicon dioxide and other dehydration particles in a process known as "rain elimination."

Officials are pulling out all the stops to put on a perfect Olympics, and they are leaving nothing to chance, not even the weather.

Every Olympic stadium is covered by a digital weather observation outlet, which gives real-time supervision over the weather conditions in the surrounding area. And the official weather forecast, overseen by the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, will cover a total of 28,800 elements.

The workload for weather forecasters during the Olympics has gone up 40 times, according to Wang Yingchun, deputy director of the bureau.

"For some matches with special weather requirements such as sailing, we will provide 24-hour rolling forecasts," she said.

Those forecasts include air quality, which has been a contentious issue in the buildup to the games.

Beijing, where particulate matter concentrations often jump three times above what the World Health Organization considers "safe," ranks as the city with the planet's worst levels of nitrogen oxide, according to the European Space Agency.

To reduce these levels, hundreds of highly-polluting industries in Beijing, including chemical industry and coal-burning power plants, have been ordered to either relocate or pause production during the games. All industries emitting volatile organic compounds have been required to upgrade their emission treatment facilities. And starting July 20, city officials ordered half of Beijing's 3.3 million private vehicles off the roads.

"Everything that can be done has been done," said Staci Simonich, a researcher from Oregon State University who is working with Chinese scientists to monitor air pollution prior to the games.

Beijing on a Clear and Smogy Day: two pictures taken a week apart, 2005. Photo courtesy of Ulrich Thumult.

One of those scientists, Zhu Tong, the principle investigator for the Campaigns of Air Quality Research in Beijing and Surrounding Regions (CARE Beijing), said the measures have been paying off.

According to Zhu, levels of nitrogen oxide decreased by 48 percent at one monitoring station during the period of July 20 - 29 compared with that of June 25 - 30. He did not mention any change in particulate matter concentration levels, which still surpass WHO regulations, according to the BBC.

However, Beijing's air quality may be determined more by geography than by government policy.

Facing mountains in all but one direction, Beijing has unfavorable geographic conditions for pollution dissipation. In addition, many of its air pollutants come from neighboring provinces, including Hebei and Shandong.

According to an article published last year in Atmospheric Environment, one-third of Beijing's summertime fine particulate matter and up to two-thirds of its ozone arise from emission sources outside Beijing.

David Streets, a senior scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory who coauthored the paper with Chinese colleagues, said that whether the government measures so far would be enough to maintain a good air quality for the Olympics depends largely on the weather.

"Hopefully, there will be sufficient wind and rain to keep the pollution levels low," he said in a written interview. "But if stagnation episodes arise with low wind speeds, heat and humidity, then I think there will still be some pollution, and the government might have to institute additional emission control measures for a few days or delay one or two events."

Two weeks ago, the city just experienced such a downgrade of air quality. Visibility decreased to only half a mile in some parts of the city, according to Associated Press.

In response, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) issued another regulation to deal with emergency air quality control. Another 105 factories in Beijing will be forced to halt production, and all construction work in the city must be stopped if air quality continues to deteriorate during the games, it says.

Simonich, the Oregon State professor, said she noticed a difference since the beginning of August. "The past weekend was so beautiful, with very good air quality," she said.

Likewise, the forecast in Qingdao, the seaside city which is to host the Olympic sailing competition, is clear for now.

This June and July, the city experienced two outbreaks of blue-green algae, which carpeted the port, and took more than 10,000 people to clean up.

But the current water quality near Qingdao is "top level," according to Wang Shulian, vice director of the Qingdao Ocean and Fishery Administration.

"Our real-time observation has not found any evidence that the algae will float in again in the near future," she said.

And, should it float, officials are prepared to dispatch more than 1,000 boats to control any new outbreaks.

Still, that mobilization effort is small compared to what Yao Zhanyu has had to deal with as a member of the weather modification office under the Beijing Olympic Weather Service Center.

As early as six months ago, the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee laid out the final details for weather control during the games.

The overriding goal is to ensure no rain over the Bird's Nest during the opening and closing ceremonies, according to Yao, who is also a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences.

The office has arranged "security lines" in three directions surrounding the stadium-- west, southwest and southeast-- to stall the threat of rain clouds, Yao said. The farthest line, with launch sites at every 10 kilometers, is positioned within neighboring Hebei Province.

"Almost all the cloud seeding technicians in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, including those from the rocket manufacturing factories, have gathered on the site, waiting for orders," Yao said.

"If the rain belt comes from upstream, we will use gunshots to hunt the rain clouds and blast them with rockets containing silver iodide, with the hope that they will release raindrops before moving to above the stadium," he continued.

If the rain results from an updraft, however, technicians will have to change the plan from inducing early pouring to reducing raindrop formation.

"We consider planting large quantities of dehydration particles, such as silicon dioxide, into the clouds. In this way, there will be many more nuclei inside the rain clouds, so that the small raindrops can never grow up,' and the power of rainfall will be greatly diminished," Yao explained. "It (rain elimination) is a still less mature technique than cloud seeding, though."

But, as an old Chinese saying goes, "human determination can change the destination." This is what Chinese scientists and officials are hoping will prove true as the games get under way.

Wu Chong is a freelance journalist who has written for China Daily and She is also an editor for Global Environmental Review, a Chinese electronic magazine about environmental news.