It won't dare to rain on Moscow's parade Anniversary: Preparations for the celebration of the Russian capital's 850th birthday this weekend include redirecting inclement weather away from the city.


September 05, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In this city where anything goes, where business is fast and loose and mobsters gloat behind the darkened windows of the ubiquitous Mercedes-Benzes, Moscow's do-it-now mayor has out-brazened them all:

Yuri Luzhkov has taken out a contract on the weather.

Luzhkov has spent months and millions burnishing his city for a glittery 850th birthday celebration this weekend, and nothing may tarnish it. Not even nature.

The mayor has sandblasted Moscow out of its gray Soviet past, restoring the pastel glory of its 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Prostitutes and vagrants have been deported to the countryside. And all clouds have been ordered to relieve themselves a respectable distance to the southwest.

The cloud-busters are known as the Weather Modification Department of the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring.

Valery N. Stasenko, who has a doctorate in geophysics, is in charge. From a dimly lighted building, he supervises one of the world's most successful efforts to tamper with nature, and not just in Russia.

The weather modifiers travel to Argentina, where they have a contract to disperse crop-threatening hail. They have a contract to draw forth rain in often-parched Syria. Italy is considering hiring them for an attack on fog.

Mayor Luzhkov is paying the department $880,000 to prevent rain from falling on his three-day parade of pageants, Pavarotti and state-of-the-art laser shows that begins today.

Stasenko has assembled eight airplanes, 90 people, assorted radar and satellite information, a flying cloud laboratory and an array of dry ice and silver iodide.

He can't actually prevent rain from falling, only compel it to fall earlier than it would otherwise.

Depending on what kinds of clouds come this way, the planes will fly through the clouds, seeding them with silver iodide, fly above and drop dry ice on them or simply fill them with sand.

The chemicals make the clouds colder, speeding up the natural process by which ice crystals form and fall to earth. The sand provides a structure on which ice crystals can form and fall.

Other countries seed clouds, but only to ease droughts and stave off disaster for farmers. It would be hard to imagine Washington spending $880,000 to send its inauguration snow elsewhere -- and even harder to imagine West Virginia happy to receive it.

That sort of attitude is lost on Stasenko. "If we can make 2 or 3 centimeters fall earlier, it won't flood you," he says.

In winter, Moscow hires the weather modifiers to make oncoming clouds drop their snow before hitting Moscow. Stasenko says his department's work has reduced the city's snowfalls by nearly 20 percent, saving billions of rubles in snow-clearing costs.

"To decrease it in Moscow," he says, "it has to fall in a less-populated space. We choose where, depending on the wind and its speed."

Stasenko's department was in charge of the weather in May 1995, when Russia celebrated the 50th anniversary of victory in World War II. President Clinton and other dignitaries watched the parades in bright sunshine. When night fell, so did the rain.

"Yes, we suffered from heavy rains in May 1995, and there were rumors around that rain clouds had been transported to us artificially," said Nina Ivanova, an editorial writer for the New Life newspaper in Mozhaisk, west of Moscow. "But folks here made no complaints. We regard such situations with understanding."

Americans can only regard such equanimity with envy. Joe Golden, senior meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, talks regretfully about how the United States tried for years to produce the same results.

"The FAA would not let us fire rockets," he said, "so we could never duplicate what they were doing."

The Russians use rockets to penetrate a cloud when the weather is considered too dangerous for a plane.

zTC Two years ago, without debate, Golden said, Congress cut off money for weather-modification research in the United States.

Rearranging the weather is but one detail in an elaborate birthday celebration. Luzhkov has taken the opportunity to present a new Moscow to the world.

The highly persuasive mayor has managed to get tenants of many Moscow buildings to restore their surroundings after decades of governmental neglect. They were told to paint and plant flowers. An estimated 4 million flowers have been planted this year.

"We told banks and commercial organizations to plant trees and flowers," said Boris M. Korshunkov, who oversees the maintenance of city streets.

"We obliged them to make everything beautiful. The city government budget was not involved. The system is that we could make the rent higher if they didn't understand what we wanted. There are levers, you know."

The city has repaired miles of roads, eliminating potholes so deep that they often caused serious automobile damage.

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