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Russia reigns over its weather

Moscow officials have already chased away clouds on public holidays. Now they're considering cloud seeding to keep snow-removal costs down in the winter. Neighboring towns may get dumped on.

December 08, 2009|By Megan K. Stack
  • Snow may be an icon of Russian winters, but city officials in Moscow say it's too expensive to clear. They're considering a cloud-seeding process that would prevent heavy snowfalls in the capital.
Snow may be an icon of Russian winters, but city officials in Moscow say it's… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Moscow — In the snow-hushed woods on Moscow's northern edge, scientists are decades deep into research on bending the weather to their will. They've been at it since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin paused long enough in the throes of World War II to found an observatory dedicated to tampering with climatic inconveniences.

Since then, they've melted away fog, dissipated the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl and called down rains fierce enough to drown unborn locusts threatening the distant northeastern grasslands.

Now they're poised to battle the most inevitable and emblematic force of Russian winter: the snow.

Moscow's government, led by powerful and long-reigning Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, has indicated that clearing the capital's streets of snow is simply too expensive. Instead, officials are weighing a plan to seed the clouds with liquid nitrogen or dry ice to keep heavy snow from falling inside the city limits.

Word of the proposal has sent a shudder through Moscow just as the first dark, snowy days have fallen on the capital. It has also piqued the surrounding region, which would receive the brunt of the displaced snowfall, and has raised concerns among ecologists.

"I was very surprised because [the mayor] never even asked us," says Alexei Yablokov, who sits on the mayor's ecological council and has concerns about the proposal, including the environmental effects and pressure on surrounding villages. "We never discussed it at all."

The city government says it still hasn't reached a decision. But scientists at the Central Aerological Observatory say they are deep into negotiations with authorities and expect the cloud-seeding plan to go forward.

The city has hit upon a splendid idea, the scientists say. Laboring against the uncomfortable sense that their observatory's import has waned since its Soviet heyday, they are eager to unleash their many and various technologies.

They already seed the clouds for political effect, clearing the skies over Moscow twice a year to ensure sun-drenched celebrations of patriotic holidays.

In Russia, nobody rains on the parade -- because the Russian government doesn't allow it.

"Victory Day is the most sacred holiday for us," says Bagrat Danilian, deputy chief of cloud seeding at the observatory. "When veterans go out to celebrate in Moscow, we create good weather for them."

All it takes, he says, is sacks of cement -- 500-grade, to be precise. Drop the powder down into the clouds, and they vanish.

Soviet scientists learned how to disperse clouds by accident 40 years ago: They had flown overhead and dropped powdered blue paint into the clouds to tag them for observation. Instead, the powder melted the clouds away.

Danilian, 56, a dark-haired, solid man with a quick grin, was born to an Armenian family in Soviet Georgia and studied physics at Tbilisi State University.

He moved to Moscow in 1979 to work for the observatory, and has been there ever since.

He is nostalgic for the Soviet era of experimentation. In those days, when Danilian was younger and funding more plentiful, he was sent off to Vietnam, Cuba and Syria to study the clouds.

He has flown into hurricanes, bounced through airstreams like a pingpong ball and survived lightning strikes on turboprop planes.

"You won't find a more interesting profession," he says enthusiastically. "You can't compare it with anything. You just float on your own adrenaline."

There is something almost godlike about interfering with the weather. It was a need to rationalize the whims of climate that inspired the notion of deities in ancient times, and there is still an inherent sense of helplessness before nature's force.

In much of the world, weather and cloud research is focused on preventing hailstorms, tornadoes, droughts and the like. Not that Russia is the only country that has used it to ensure sunny public holidays. In Beijing, clouds have been chased away from the Olympic ceremonies and other celebrations.

But there is a certain nonchalance to the way Russians regard cloud seeding. For a people accustomed to displays of great power, changing the weather draws little interest.

"It's true that the attitude here is more positive, of course," says Aleksandr Azarov, senior scientist at the observatory. And why not, he shrugs.

"If there's a drought, who wouldn't pray to God for rain to fall?"

The cloud seeding is done in moderation, scientists insist.

"You shouldn't overstep the threshold over which the weather would change globally," Danilian says. "We're trying to look for that threshold in a very careful way."

Sometimes, despite their efforts, nature wins. And in one instance, gravity.

As the Russian air force toiled to chase the clouds out of town for last year's independence day celebrations, a clump of cement tumbled to earth instead of dissipating into the clouds. It crashed through the roof of a house on Moscow's outskirts.

Rather than accept the $2,000 compensation offered by the military, the homeowner huffed to reporters that she would file suit for "moral suffering."

It's unlikely that Muscovites would ever agree to forgo snow altogether. During the long, dark months of winter, the flicker of clean snowflakes against the sky is one of the few recurrent graces, creating a vast playground for children and briefly coating the drab days in sparkling white.

But Luzhkov, the mayor, is prepared to choke off any particularly massive snowfalls, which usually unleash battalions of plows, flanked by armies of workers hoisting ice picks and shovels.

The city government believes it can save more than $13 million with cloud seeding.

"In the movies, the snow looks very beautiful with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background," says Azarov, the senior scientist. "But this snow costs a pretty penny to Moscow authorities."

megan.stack@latimes.com

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