Makin’ it Rain
“Can one person control the weather?”
I work in sales in a modest middle-management position and it is not my dream job; back as a young lad and still to most degrees now I aspired to be a supervillain, like The Riddler, or Putin. The other day you might have even found me idly flicking through a Wiki of superpowers (click here to be allocated one at random) to see if any were somehow transferable to real life, and I casually landed on “weather manipulation” most notably used by Storm from the X-Men. When I went to bed that night I found myself insomniacal, unable to stop thinking about how I could potentially become a meteorological menace. Eventually I relented and at 2:30am on a weeknight I retired to the spare room, poured myself a large Glen Moray single malt and tapped into Google ‘how to control the weather’. “You’ve lost the plot, Matt,” I recall saying aloud to myself at the time.
It was quickly apparent that the most prevalent way in which we humans try to control the weather is by striving to cause rain. This has stretched back for millennia in the shape of tribal raindances or similar ceremonies, and to this day in drought-ravaged African villages Kings are expected to be able to perform certain rituals that bring about rainfall or face getting scapegoated and killed by their people. Elsewhere during dry spells in Thailand townfolk will traditionally place a grey cat in a basket, walk it around the village and each household will take turns dousing the animal in water which apparently can prompt rain within 3 to 7 days.
These methods obviously don’t work, but there is an actual scientific route to go down – cloud seeding. Normally implemented to mitigate drought over particularly hard-hit areas, this involves pumping clouds with silver iodide either by firing rockets full of the chemicals up from the ground (“base seeding”) or dropping a dose from jet planes flying above (“direct injection”). Silver iodide molecules are almost identical in structure to ice crystals, so they react with water vapour in clouds cooling the gas down to liquid water: rain. You’re essentially causing a cloud to prematurely shoot its watery load, and instantly create a downpour when that rainfall might not have fallen for days or months or possibly at all.
I instantly knew I wanted to try this for myself, with visions of harnessing this power and using it to vindictively rain off the barbecues of people I didn’t like. And whilst this practice is normally restricted to governmental activity – Beijing used it in 2008 to wring all their rain out before the Olympic opening ceremony, for example, and the U.S employed it aggressively during the Vietnam War (code-named “Operation Popeye”) to cause flooding and landslides to impede Vietnamese supply trucks – there have been cases of individuals editing the weather for their own selfish reasons. Paul McCartney spent £20,000 cloud seeding over the Palace Square in Russia to ensure blue skies for his 3,000th concert back in 2004, and there’s even an insanely exorbitant wedding consultancy Oliver’s Travels which will take £100,000 of your money and seed some clouds prior to your wedding so that it’s all sunny for your big day.
Consequently before I had even done any experimenting and with only a little online research I knew the answer to my initial question: yes, it is possible for one person to control the weather. However what about for us less-esteemed who aren’t Beatles or billionaire brides? Can we have any influence?
I couldn’t not find out. My aim was to wait for a day in which Bournemouth was not forecast any rain – and despite its sunny reputation that is a real rare occurrence – then execute some form of low-budget, one-man cloud-seeding operation to see what happened. It’d probably be some way from supervillainy, but I was taken with the idea of harvesting a bit of rain that I personally had conceived which I could later freeze and use as cubes in my whisky like a cool God might.
All I needed was some silver iodide and a couple of fireworks as a means of getting it up into the wind currents. Fireworks were surprisingly hard to obtain, with the first two stores I visited boasting on their window displays “we sell fireworks here!” yet sneering at my request for such and explaining that obviously they didn’t sell any in February. Thankfully at my third port of call I was able to secure a pack of ‘Sonic Boom’ rockets without any further issues.
Silver iodide was even trickier to procure. There were a few UK websites I found which offered the chemical but they only sold to businesses, so I had to pretend to be a business. I chose the chemical purveyor which asked for the fewest credentials on their order form, called my company ‘Matt Rose Gonzo Inc.’ and prayed they didn’t run any background checks.
Mercifully the order was processed fine, however being a box of chemicals the package demanded a signature upon delivery and I missed the first two Hermes attempts leaving me one last shot to get my silver. I do feel my portrayal of a chemical business owner may have suffered somewhat as I frenziedly clomped downstairs to meet the deliveryman on his third try to sign for my vial of AgI, incredibly hungover, topless wearing nothing but pyjama bottoms and with an erection.
I filled two baggies with the yellowish granules and taped them to their propellants. If I could get it into the clouds that 10g of silver iodide would be enough to create 100 trillion ice crystals.
Launch was from an outcrop along the beach on an evening obfuscated with cloud, but only predicted a 9% chance of rain. Both rockets went up in quick succession, the first I videoed for proof but the second I strolled away from not even looking back at the explosion like a real grizzled badass. This does however make you jump, I don’t care how grizzled you are.
Accompanied by a hipflask of bourbon I paced up and down the seafront with palms extended, sensitive to the tiniest bead of moisture which might be newly descending. My research had told me ‘base seeding’ can take up to half an hour to start milking rain and so I spent that time silently yearning for precipitation. I had a flash of how it must feel to be a leader of those African villages, stomping around the scorched earth and waving huge blue feathers about to try to coax some moisture from the sky, fearfully aware your people will flog you inside-out if you fail.
Obviously it didn’t rain for me, I honestly wasn’t expecting it to. What I can promise is that bizarrely, whereas before the entire sky had been knitted together with cloud, post-launch a huge hole in the cloud layer had been punched over my exact location. This could however be the normal reaction to fireworks anyway, or it could have been coincidence or I might have been going mental: I’d been stood in the dark drinking Jim Beam looking up at the sky for so long I’d started to lose my mind, I genuinely couldn’t tell what were clouds and what weren’t any more. Eventually I shuffled back home, dry.
Later that night it did go on to rain, in fact it caned it down and continued for some days after – the forecast had spelled a 54% chance of that anyway but I like to think I contributed a few droplets. “Sorry about this,” I said facetiously to my coworkers who knew of my cloud seeding, as I gestured at the rain lashing against the office windows.
And thereby we see the failing of this particular superpower. There’s never not any weather and it’s capricious by its very nature, so it’s easy to take the credit for whatever the skies are currently up to. Although my silvery rockets likely made no impact whatsoever I could happily nod at the drizzle naturally occurring outside and go “oi I did that,” I’m sure Storm from X-Men was guilty of the same ploy at times.
Even when carried out in mass quantities by hyper-equipped government forces there is still some academic debate as to whether cloud seeding actually works at all, so it’s unlikely to ever be something available to broke underachievers like us (I know I’m generalizing about you there reader, but I am comparing us both to The Beatles). Whilst taking charge of the weather is supposedly technically possible with enough money, if you want to be a supervillain I’d concentrate on bombs or arson or fear-inducing psychoactive substances instead – all you need to do is to pretend you’re a business and you’ll get the chemicals right at your doorstep.