Nasty weather galvanizes artillery-wielding hailbusters

LONGXIAN, China (L.A. Times) – They are the Charlie’s Angels of rural China. When the weather is nice, they daydream about pink lipstick and pretty things to wear. When the weather turns nasty, they snap into action, blasting artillery into the sky and pulverizing the enemy before it strikes.

Farmers in this remote pocket of north-central China have been at war with the elements for as long as they can remember. Each summer, walnut-sized hailstones threaten to tumble from the heavens and wipe out entire harvests of corn, cabbage, tobacco and wheat, ruining their meager sources of food and livelihood.

There was no taming Mother Nature until intrepid villagers formed an all-girl army of hailbusters three decades ago, a gutsy outgrowth of the Chinese women’s movement.

Working wonders with out-of-date antiaircraft artillery from China’s wars in Korea and against Vietnam, these weather guerrillas have become cult heroes to many local folks, who give thanks to them for surveying the skies and saving the crops.

“My grandfather tells me that hailstorms are afraid of young girls,” said He Liefang, 17, one of about 55 young women on duty this year here.

Granted, shooting rocket grenades at storm clouds is an unusual way of controlling hail. A sprinkling of American farmers has experimented with similar methods, among them firing sonic waves into the sky to disperse hailstorms before they hit.

But most scientists consider such attempts wishful thinking, saying there is no way to prove what nature would have done without the effort. So any claim of success, they say, is dubious.

“I don’t want to be cruel and call it scientific illiteracy,” said Fred Carr, director of the school of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. “But people don’t really understand the cause and effect. It’s like saying, ‘I slammed the door and the hail didn’t fall on my house.’ “