Why can't we manufacture water?

Cloud Seeding and the British Disaster

The British Air Force conducted secret cloud-seeding tests following World War II. The results were disastrous.
The British Air Force conducted secret cloud-seeding tests following World War II. The results were disastrous.
Courtesy Hulton Archive/Getty Images

HowStuffWorks has discussed China's plan to prevent rain during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The process, called cloud seeding, works by firing silver iodide into storm clouds in the days leading up to the event. The Chinese government hoped it could essentially "use up" the existing clouds and assure clear skies for the ceremony.

The country's been doing it for decades -- with positive results. But another experiment in cloud seeding, on the other side of the Eurasian land mass, didn't go so smoothly.

Following World War II, the British government was still looking at ways to get a leg up over enemy militaries. The Nazis had come close to destroying Britain, and the United Kingdom had developed a taste for preparation. The British government looked to the skies for an advantage. The Royal Air Force (RAF) began experimenting with cloud seeding. By impregnating the clouds with the particles needed to create a severe thunderstorm, the British could effectively thwart the movement of troops and even literally rain out enemy advances. But the cloud-seeding project went terribly awry.

It's not that the experiments with cloud seeding didn't work. It worked too well.

In 2001, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) investigated rumors that the RAF had seeded the clouds over England. They turned up first-person accounts of some of the pilots who were involved in a top-secret mission called Operation Cumulus. During this August 1952 operation, RAF pilots flew above the cloud line, dropping payloads of dry ice, salt and -- like the Chinese currently use -- silver iodide.

After just 30 minutes, rain began to fall from the infected clouds. At first, the RAF pilots -- dubbed rainmakers by the press -- reputedly celebrated their success. But within the week a deluge began. By the end of the month, North Devon, an area of England near the site of the cloud-seeding experiment, experienced 250 times the normal amount of rainfall [source: BBC].

On August 15, 1952, the day the rain started, an estimated 90 million tons of water coursed through the town of Lynmouth in just one day [source: The Guardian]. Entire trees were uprooted, forming dams and allowing the tide of the two rivers flowing through Lynmouth to grow even stronger in force. Boulders were carried by the current, destroying buildings and carrying residents into the sea. In all, 35 Britons lost their lives that day as a result of the torrential rain. Britain's Ministry of Defense maintains that it had not experimented with cloud seeding prior to the Lynmouth incident.

China and Britain paint two versions of the same picture. On one hand, the Asian nation has successfully created a cloud-seeding program. They've managed to generate irrigation for arid croplands from the ultimate source. But the British disaster shows the potential results of toying with the forces of nature.

And still, we need water more than ever. Using explosions isn't viable to produce water currently, and AquaMagic and Whisson's Windmill aren't being produced on a large enough scale to help with the immediate need for water. Water is a finite resource, and one life on Earth can't do without.

For more information on all things water, read the next page.

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