Hey, mister: Wanna buy a cloud?

In China, individuals and corporations can now buy the rights to seed a cloud for rain. What does that mean for farmers who need the clouds for their crops?

By James Ledbetter, CNNMoney deputy managing editor

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- When Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote "Get Off My Cloud" in 1965, it's unlikely they conceived of an active market in cloud ownership.

But in today's China, clouds are for sale - or at least available for exclusive temporary use. According to Paul French, an author and businessman based in Shanghai, the Chinese government now offers to sell clouds to individuals and companies for their personal use. And he should know, since he negotiated to buy one earlier this spring.

"We were doing an outdoor promotion based around an X-Games event in China," explains French, the chief China representative of Access Asia, a business consulting group based in Shanghai. "I asked around and somehow the cloud seeding people got my name."

In China, clouds are often seeded the night before a big public event, in order to freshen the air. Last year, USA Today reported that the Chinese plan to pre-emptively seed clouds before the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, to ensure that the crucial day is dry.

The reason for the cloud "sales" stems from China's formidable air pollution. If the authorities can force a cloud to rain, it can help to wash away pollution. In April 2006, for example, the Chinese government announced that it intended to seed clouds over Beijing to help clear away an estimated 300,000 tons of sand and dust that hit the capital in a rain storm.

The Chinese may well be the world leaders in cloud seeding, an expertise they began to develop because of droughts in the northern part of the country. The government's Meteorological Department actually has a division the name of which translates as "Office of Artificial Weather Inducement."

The principal method of cloud seeding involves using modified military aircraft, the Xia Yan IIIA and An-26 planes, to drop silver iodide particles into clouds, although other methods use artillery shells fired from anti-aircraft guns and meteorological balloons to carry the chemical. Silver iodide causes portions of the cloud to freeze, thereby inducing rain, often within hours (although the process is not foolproof).

Now China has taken the added step of offering cloud seeding - at a price - to private individuals and companies. French says that when representatives from the Office of Artificial Weather Inducement approached him, "the negotiations began at $US3500 and we ended at $700."

In the end, French declined to make the purchase, in part because he wasn't sure if rain was guaranteed and he was uncertain about the environmental impact of cloud-seeding.

Several China analysts have noted that farmers in two provinces bordering Shanghai are upset that authorities there seed clouds. They believe that they are entitled to the rain the clouds would produce once they drifted over the farm land.

Anyone awaiting a definitive decision from the Chinese government about who is entitled to own a cloud, however, is likely to be left high and dry.  Top of page