. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Smog Thickens Despite Rainmaker

APAn engineer adjusting an ionizer on top of the Emergency Situations Ministry building.
A suffocating blanket of smog shrouded Moscow on Sunday, reducing visibility to 50 meters in parts of the city, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

The three major airports cut down on inbound flights, diverting many to alternative airports. However, outbound flights continued to take off on schedule, Interfax reported.

Tourists visiting Red Square held paper masks over their mouths and struggled to make out the Kremlin's beautiful golden cupolas through the fog-like smoke.

The city's weather service said Sunday that the buildup of acrid smoke from forest and peat fires in the Moscow region will last at least until Tuesday, when winds from the north are expected to help dissipate the smog.

Sunday's smog came two days after a surprise light rain shower cleared the air -- for which the Emergency Situations Ministry claimed credit.

The ministry said it drew rain clouds to the capital Friday and created artificial showers by switching on a large ionizer atop a ministry building in western Moscow.

"Yes, we did it," ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov said proudly of the drizzle that brought a few hours of long-awaited relief after several rainless weeks. He said the ministry kept the device working Friday in an effort to repeat the initial success.

It was the first time the ministry used the equipment, developed by its research institute, Beltsov said. The institute's director, Mikhail Shakhramanian, said the device, a metal cage crisscrossed by tungsten wire, emits a vertical flow of oxygen ions that stirs the air and raises humidity.

"The flow of ions blew a hole in the smog layer and drove its particles up higher," Shakhramanian said in a telephone interview. "At the next stage, oxygen ions concentrated humidity."

Shakhramanian promised the ionizer would cause more rain in the following days but added that the process would be slow because the air is bone-dry.

Shakhramanian pointed to weather forecasts -- which had called for sunny, smoky skies Friday -- as proof that his device, not nature, was responsible for the rain.

Friday's drizzle stunned many residents. As early-morning commuters listened to the dreary forecasts, light rain dripped down their windshields.

"It helped. I could breathe today, in contrast to yesterday," said Dmitry Chaprov, an accountant.

Still, some were skeptical of the ministry's claim. Chaprov said he did not doubt rain could be man-made but said it would probably involve more sophisticated equipment than Russia could afford.

"It's all fantasy," said Lyudmila, a retiree who gave only her first name. "You can't cause a rain with an ionizer; it's sheer nonsense."

Meteorologists warned that more substantial rain would be needed to put out the forest and peat bog fires blazing around Moscow.

Despite Friday's drizzle, the carbon monoxide level on Sunday reached 2.5 times the maximum admissible concentration in central Moscow, 2.7 times greater in the northeast and less than two times greater in other districts, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

Prosecutors have launched a criminal probe into local officials for negligence, and more than 3,000 people have been fined for violating fire safety rules, Itar-Tass reported.

(AP, MT)