U.S. Water News Online
BISMARCK, N.D. -- The debate has been going on for decades,
in legislatures, in county board rooms and in farm fields: Can the
clouds be changed to make rain?
Hans Ahlness says yes. Dan Flor says no.
The National Research Council says it's time to find out.
The council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a
recent report that while clouds across the globe have been seeded for
60 years to increase rainfall and reduce hail, there is no convincing
evidence it works.
The council is calling for a national research effort into weather
modification -- cloud seeding now done in some form in 24 countries
and 10 states, including North Dakota.
Ahlness, vice president of operations for Fargo-based Weather
Modification Inc., which seeds clouds in a number of states and
countries, doubts more research will ever end the debate, but he
thinks it's a good start.
Storm clouds are seeded by sprinkling them with tiny crystals of
silver iodide to promote moisture circulating in the tops of the
clouds. The theory is that the developing ice crystals melt as they
fall, producing rain.
A Denver cloud seeding operation was credited last year with
increasing the amount of snow in one county with four ski areas.
Flor, who ranches near Marmarth in southwestern North Dakota's
Slope County, sees no proof of it.
``There's no proof that it's ever produced any more rainfall. The
hail insurance premiums don't reflect that it decreases hail,'' he
Five North Dakota counties and part of Slope County take part in
the Cloud Modification Project, which is operated and partially
funded by the state Atmospheric Resource Board.
This past summer, cloud seeding planes spent about 675 hours in
the air over those counties, board director Darin Langerud said. The
total cost of the program was about $600,000, with the board paying
about one-third of the cost and the counties the rest.
Langerud said the cost prevents other counties from signing up,
but a lack of hard evidence that cloud seeding works also is a
``If you hold it to ... scientifically credible proof, it is true
that a lot of aspects of cloud seeding have not met that standard,''
he said. The government, he said, has not adequately funded research
to help states meet that standard.
In the early 1990s, Montana farmers worried that cloud seeding
over eastern Montana was stealing their rain. The Montana Legislature
passed a law requiring an expensive environmental study and a $10
million bond before any cloud seeding could take place, effectively
putting a stop to cloud seeding in 1993.
Even years of drought have not changed the minds of some Montana
``We're way better off right now than we were in the 1980s, when
(cloud seeders) were in here,'' said Bernard Pease, who farms near
Lambert, Mont., to the west of North Dakota's McKenzie County.
``If these guys are so great, there would be people knocking on
the door to bring them in.''
Langerud said cloud seeding often is not the answer to ending a
drought because the clouds have to be there to seed.
``You can't make it rain out of a clear, blue sky,'' he said.
Better research programs and communication might help convince
people of the benefits of cloud seeding, Ahlness said.
``People tend to be pretty polarized on the issue,'' he said.
``When things are going badly in farming ... you're always looking
for something that's causing your misfortune. The weather is always a
lightning rod for that ... and we're out there fiddling around with
The National Research Council said the United States invested more
than $20 million a year in weather modification research in the late
1970s, but now spends less than $500,000 a year. It said only a
handful of research programs exist worldwide.
Peter Soeth, a bureau spokesman in Denver, said President Bush's
budget for fiscal 2004 did not include funding for cloud-seeding
Flor said cloud-seeding is ``a waste of taxpayer money that causes
a lot of bad feelings.''
In Slope County, it led to a battle of petitions in the mid-1990s.
Eventually, only part of the county approved cloud seeding. Flor
lives in the other part, but he says the planes still fly overhead.
``The people around here would be more than happy to get rid of
them,'' he said, ``if they knew how to do it.''
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