Will There Be Snow in Moscow This Winter?

Not if the mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov has his way. According to Simon Shuster at TIME magazine,

For just a few million dollars, the mayor’s office will hire the Russian Air Force to spray a fine chemical mist over the clouds before they reach the capital, forcing them to dump their snow outside the city. Authorities say this will be a boon for Moscow, which is typically covered with a blanket of snow from November to March. Road crews won’t need to constantly clear the streets, and traffic — and quality of life — will undoubtedly improve.

Luzhkov’s plan raises fascinating scientific, economic, and ethical questions.

The first question is will the plan work? As we note in SuperFreakonomics, cloud-seeding has a long history, dating at least back to the late 1940′s when three General Electric employees had some success with putting silver iodide into clouds. One of those scientists was named Bernard Vonnegut. The public relations manager on the project was his little brother, Kurt, who eventually went on to write some books. Nonetheless, controlling the weather is no easy task.

From an economic perspective, the plan highlights what economists call externalities, i.e., when one party’s actions impose costs on another party without that second party’s permission. The article suggests that much of the snow that would have fallen on Moscow will instead end up in Moscow’s suburbs.

From an efficiency perspective, it probably does make sense to move snow out of very densely populated areas with a great deal of vehicle traffic. The extra snow will make life harder for snowbound suburbanites, however. One solution would be to have Moscow compensate the suburban residents for the extra snow. Alternatively, if it turned out that the costs to the suburb dwellers exceeded the benefits to the Muscovites (and if transaction/coordination costs were small enough), the suburbs could band together and pay Moscow (or maybe it would be cheaper to simply bribe Luzhkov directly) not to carry out the plan. Or maybe the Russian Air Force is skilled enough to make the snow fall in places where no one lives.

From an ethical perspective, the plan raises many of the same issues that the world will likely face as geoengineering comes to the forefront. No doubt, the idea of human intervention to influence where snow falls will strike many as repugnant. I wonder if the same set of emotions were present when rivers were being dammed or land was being reclaimed from the sea in places like the Netherlands? Or is this a uniquely modern reaction?

Certainly, repugnance over affecting local environments is context-specific. When I was growing up in Minneapolis, the local government implemented some technological solutions that dramatically reduced the number of mosquitoes in the city. Our backyard, which up until that time had been too mosquito-infested to use, became my favorite place to practice my golf game. I can’t remember anyone ever complaining about that particular application of technology, except my mother, and that was only because I ruined the grass in the backyard by taking so many divots.

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  1. Ian Kemmish says:

    Presumably the trick is to live in a suburb adjoining a highway running between the centre and the compounds where the more favoured oligarchs have their dachas….

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  2. Will C says:

    I don’t understand why they wouldn’t seed the clouds to dump the snow before it reaches the suburbs.

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  3. Quill says:

    If there’s any military that I trust to spray chemicals from combat aircraft over civilian areas, it’s the Russian military.

    According to the Russian air force maps, which direction is Chechnya and Ukraine from Moscow?

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  4. MikeM says:

    What about the hydrological effects? All that snow has to melt in the spring and then it starts flowing. What could possibly go wrong there?

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  5. Philippe says:

    Here’s another solution: Don’t build your capital someplace that snows so much if you don’t want to deal with it!

    If you don’t want to deal with hurricanes, don’t live near the ocean. If you don’t want to deal with wild fires, don’t live in So. Cal.

    @ Will C: That would be a larger area, thus require more seeding material, fuel, etc. == more rubles.

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  6. Jay says:

    Some of this mayor’s past disasters with attempts to modify nature are pretty amusing:
    http://www.meteorologynews.com/2009/10/19/moscow-testing-cloud-seeding-promises-winter-without-snow/

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  7. Brian says:

    Does no snow, mean no rain as well. What will the effect be on the water table in Moscow? Also will this change growing cycles in the outlying areas due to a longer thaw? So many things can happen when you change weather patterns.

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  8. Greg says:

    Not only has the mayor, Luzhkov, proposed this hare-brained scheme, he has promised that he will be successful. I have no reason to call him a liar, except for the fact that no-one has ever really been successful in controlling the weather, and I doubt that he has special access to some new meteorological innovation.

    What I find interesting is the fact that this nut can get away with outright lies like this because the media in Russia is so constrained, compared to the western media. If he were a US mayor, the media would tear him apart.

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