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Weather warriors on alert
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Zheng Guoguang is a commander-in-chief without a uniform. On alert are 53,000 high-caliber "troops" with their aim fixed on clouds and winds, and a regiment armed with 7,000 artilleries and 5,000 rocket launchers.

On his command, they fire at least 1 million shells and chemical pellets a year - not to storm enemy lines but to stop hailstorms or stimulate rainfall.

Zheng, chief of the China Meteorological Administration, is charged with a battle plan for 2008: To serve the Olympic Games, launch a campaign to inform every citizen of deleterious weather and prepare the nation for climate change.

"To put it succinctly, we will provide the best ever service for the Olympics," Zheng told China Daily yesterday. "We'll also deliver weather messages to residents real fast, and draft resources to counter climate change."

The agency started Olympic preparations in 2001 - the year the capital won the right to host the Games - with the country's top weathermen working side by side with international specialists.

"The best human resources and state-of-the-art equipment and expertise are all here for the Games," he said. "We'll offer weather forecasts for specific Games venues at specific times and even for specific events."

Weathermen are expected to know a week in advance if there is a threat of rain on the opening day of the Beijing Games, and will then take measures to keep it away.

In addition to installing more weather monitoring stations in Beijing and its vicinity, the meteorological authorities have launched drills to hone technical skills, he said.

For example, 34 weathermen from the agency spent 37 days in April and May last year at several camps 5,200-7,028 meters above sea level on Mount Qomolangma - known in the West as Mount Everest - to provide weather updates, which helped take the Olympic torch to the world's highest peak in a rehearsal.

During a torch relay drill in July-August, forecasters provided detailed reports to a city every 12 hours for four days before the flame reached, and scored an accuracy rate of up to 84 percent for precipitation in a timeframe of 12-120 hours, according to figures from the agency.

Using rockets and aircraft, the agency dispersed clouds before they reached Shanghai on October 2, the opening of the Special Olympic Games in the city.

"It is unrealistic to speculate now on weather conditions for the Beijing Games and what moves we'll take then," Zheng said. "We have the confidence and are ready."

With 10 percent of the country's satellite fleet dedicated to monitoring weather and 122 sophisticated Doppler radars installed on the mainland - an advanced weather radar network second only to the US - China is scrambling to mitigate the impact of climatic calamities which killed 2,111 people last year.

"We realize that accurate forecasting is important, but more important is to get the information through to the public and alert them of countermeasures," Zheng said.

"That's why in addition to conventional media, we'll put cellphone and satellite broadcasting systems in place to make weather alerts accessible to every resident in need."

In 2007, the agency dispatched at least 1.2 billion text messages on weather alerts to mobile phone users including 620,000 emergency workers in government departments.

But as it usually takes an hour to deliver 1 million short messages, a storm or typhoon may have already stricken many people before they were informed.

"The cellphone broadcast is a one-to-many, geographically focused messaging service for nationwide or citywide alerts," Zheng said. "Our recent tests in Shenzhen showed it was much more efficient."

For those living in remote mountainous regions or without mobile phone service, the satellite broadcasting system, which uses village loudspeakers and radio receivers as its terminals, will come to their aid.

"Behind the weather alert regime is a concept that nobody shall be left behind in case of natural disasters, and that a tiny fault in weather forecasts or a single delay in information delivery could cause huge losses to life and property," Zheng added.

China has set up a disaster relief mechanism that mobilizes the resources of all governmental departments and stresses the participation of all walks of society, with the meteorological agencies at the core.

"It is not rare for a province to evacuate half a million or even a million residents in the face of an impending typhoon," said Zheng. "Each and every time, government officials or police visit each house to ensure they've moved; and clean water, food and shelter are provided at the government's cost."

In Zhejiang alone last September, 1.79 million people were evacuated before Typhoon Wipha struck, the largest mass evacuation in the history of the East China province.

Wipha and seven other typhoons swept across China last year, claiming 69 lives, a historic low casualty figure thanks to effective preparations and accurate forecasts, according to Zheng.

He said the agency will step up research on the impact of climate change and provide informed decisions for judging and coping with the vulnerabilities in key infrastructure projects, agriculture, water and energy resources, eco-systems and human health sectors.

Commenting on the Bali roadmap, which was hammered out during climate change negotiations in Indonesia last month, Zheng said it is important that developed countries offer technical and financial support to developing countries to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

(China Daily January 2, 2008)

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