In an attempt to trigger additional rainfall over the Tibetan plateau, China sets the foundations of something that is likely to become the largest artificial rain experiment in history.

The project’s idea consists of tens of thousands of combustion chambers in Tibet’s mountains to increase rainfall in the region by up to 10 billion cubic meters per year.

The plan, which is a continuation of a project called Tianhe or Sky River, developed by researchers at the Chinese University of Tsinghua, hopes to bring additional amount of rains in a massive region with an area of about 1.6 million square kilometers. The project will have unprecedented economic consequences and Beijing sees it as an important tool in combating long-term drought in large areas of the country. Due to drought in 2014, for example, only one of the Chinese provinces lost 1.2 billion dollars. At least 2.3 million people and 4.4 million hectares of arable land are affected by drought.

To imagine things in perspective, here is a comparison – this means a larger area than Alaska and about three times the size of Spain. This huge scope means that if the plan succeeds, the expected additional rainfall will also be voluminous, equivalent to about 7% of the annual water consumption in China.

“Weather control in Tibet is a critical innovation to solve the problem of water scarcity in China”, Lay Fanpei said. He is the president of the Chinese state-owned Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which is developing the project.

“This will become an important contribution not only to China’s development and global prosperity, but also to the well-being of the whole human race.”

Although it sounds like a story of a science fiction movie, this form of weather engineering, called “cloud seeding”, is something that scientists have been trying to develop for decades and China has invested in the concept more money than any other nation in the world. In the Tibetan project, the combustion chambers will produce silver iodine particles which will be transferred to the atmosphere from the wind from where they are expected to cause humidity in clouds that can cause rain and snow.

“Therefore, more than 500 burners were located on the slopes of Tibet, Sinzyan and other areas for experimental use”, a researcher from the project said. “The data we have collected are showing very satisfactory results,” he added.

But not everybody is convinced of China’s plans to create artificial rainfall over such a broad area. There are still many things that we do not know about how the cloud seeding, which is usually initiated by more localised chemical agents released into the atmosphere from aeroplanes, is affecting the wider climate models.

If this proves true, the potential consequences of the Chinese Sky River could be quite serious. In this case, whole cloud systems covering an area with the size of Alaska may be diverted only to increase rainfall over the Tibetan plateau.

It is not yet known when the project will be completed, but given its scale and the controversy it raises, we doubt that this will be the last development on this issue.