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Russian scientists' winter diversion

They're scheming to seed the clouds so that snow spares Moscow.

Snow may be an icon of Russian winters, but Moscow officials say it's too costly to clear. They want it to go elsewhere, and scientists there have a plan to do just that. (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times)
Snow may be an icon of Russian winters, but Moscow officials say it's too costly to clear. They want it to go elsewhere, and scientists there have a plan to do just that. (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times)Read more

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 have 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 have 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 are poised to battle the most inevitable and emblematic force of Russian winter: the snow.

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

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

No decision

"I was very surprised, because [the mayor] never even asked us," said 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.

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

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 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 government doesn't allow it.

"Victory Day is the most sacred holiday for us," said 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 said, is sacks of cement - 500 grade, to be precise. Drop the powder down into the clouds and they vanish.

Accidental find

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 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 here ever since.

In Soviet times, 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 ping-pong ball; and survived lightning strikes on turboprop planes.

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

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

Russian cloud-seeding, however, is done in moderation, the scientists insist. "You shouldn't overstep the threshold over which the weather would change globally," Danilian said. "We're trying to look for that threshold in a very careful way."

Sometimes, despite their efforts, nature wins. And, in one instance last year, 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 the city's outskirts.

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

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