Monday, August 27, 2007

The Royal Rainmakers

HUA HIN, Thailand – The twin-engine, Spanish-made Casa 210 banks sharply to the left over the Gulf of Thailand. The pilot levels off and begins a steady climb to 6,000 feet. The skies along the coast are clear, but I can see banks of low-lying clouds in the interior – our target.

I am flying with the Royal Rainmakers based out of Hua Hin Airport in this modest coastal resort about 200 km south of Bangkok. There are eight of us on board, including the pilot, Maj. Amian, like most pilots in the rain-making service, a former army aviator.

In the bay to the back of me crouch three crewmembers, surrounded by plastic bags filled with powdered sodium chloride, the chemicals we plan to spread once we’ve reached our destination.

Our mission, as briefed at the 9 a.m. morning pilot’s meeting in Hua Hin, is to fly exactly 147 kilometers to the northwest, then turn due north seeding “warm” clouds along a 50 km stretch over Rachaburi province near the border with Myanmar.

The aircraft banks slowly to the north and begins to enter clouds. To my untutored eye they don’t look promising for making rain. They are broken and whispy, and I can see patches of ground through them, including a sinuous river.

For a moment I wonder if the mission might be aborted, but just then the crew in the after bay comes alive, and, with practiced moves, begins to empty sack after sack of sodium chloride into a chute, where it will be released into the clouds from the underbelly of the aircraft.

By now the view out of the cockpit window is all white. After twenty minutes, all of the powder released, the crew tidies up and Maj. Amian turns the aircraft back to Hua Hin. The whole mission has taken about an hour and a half.

Did we make rain today? I asked station manager Mr. Prinya Sudhikoses as we deplaned. He simply smiles and nods his head “yes.”

It is fitting that one of Thailand’s three rain-making air bases is located in Hua Hin, which is also the site of the summer palace, where Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, nearing 80, now lives virtually year round.

The King is the inspiration and in many ways the guiding light behind Thailand’s extensive rain-making/cloud seeding operation. His interest goes as far back as 1955 when, touring the parched northeast of Thailand, he noticed banks of clouds stubbornly unyielding of any moisture.

Over the years, decades even, he has maintained a hands-on interest in rainmaking. A report on the flight that I took that morning will undoubtedly be sent to the palace. In the pilot’s briefing room an enlargement of faxed notes on rainmaking in the King’s hand is proudly displayed.

Indeed, King Bhumibol holds an internationally recognized patent issued by the European Union for “weather modification by royal rain-making technology”. The patent continues: “The technology is developed to help people in Thailand and particularly those farmers who repeatedly face drought disasters due to variations and deviation of seasons,” continues the patent.

The patent raises a valid issue. Thailand may seem lush and fecund to outsiders. It grows and exports rice and many different tropical fruits, but it is actually a water management nightmare, prone to either drought or flooding.

Rain falls heavily only in the extreme south. The rest of the country makes do with an average of little more than 1,000 ml of rain annually. “Nature does not meet the needs of the Thai economy,” says Wararut Khantiyan, national director of the rainmaking service.

“We work like a doctor in a hospital,” Mr. Wararut continues. He likens the clouds to “patients” of need of a cure. Over the years the service has developed a pharmacology of cloud-seeding chemicals, ranging from sodium chloride to dry ice to urea, eight in all, for release depending on climate conditions.

The service has also evolved various tactics for “attacking” clouds, including using aircraft in pairs to simultaneously seed the clouds with different chemicals at different altitudes, what they call the “super sandwich” technique.

Like many subtropical countries, Thailand has a dry season and a rainy season, but that does not mean the rainmakers shut down operations during the wet season. It is a good time to help replenish reservoirs. “Our mission is all-year round” he says.

Interest in Thailand’s rainmaking technique has been spreading. Earlier this year a delegation flew to Tanzania to explain their techniques.

Proving the effectiveness of artificial precipitation enhancement is notoriously difficult. The problem is to discern how much precipitation came from cloud seeding and how much of it might have occurred naturally.

Thailand obviously believes in rainmaking, since it has invested considerable resources over a long period of time to devise cloud seeding techniques. The service owns 30 aircraft and employs more than 500 people operating out of three air bases and other research and radar stations.

Wararut ticks off some statistics that he says demonstrate his operation’s success: Cloud seeding has, he says, increased rain volume in the country by 109 percent; area of rainfall by 84 percent and duration of the rainfall by 84 percent.

What cannot be doubted is the positive value that the royal rainmakers have on the popularity of the monarchy, since the King is so closely identified with this project. Royal rainmaking, not to mention many other development projects the King has sponsored over his long reign, convince ordinary Thais that he has their interests at heart.

The service will respond to a rainmaking request of even one individual farmer if the conditions are right.

In June, 2006, dozens of the crowned heads from Europe, Africa and Asia arrived in Bangkok to help King Bhumibol celebrate 60 years on the throne, the longest reign in modern history.

At the Grand Palace they were treated to many spectacles, including a glamorous procession of royal barges along the Chao Praya River. But the centerpiece of the occasion, the subject the King was most proud to display, was a multimedia presentation of royal rainmaking.



Post a Comment

<< Home