Nobody is closer to weather than people who rely on it for a living, so when the farmer I worked for several summers ago informed me that the government is manipulating weather, I payed attention.
The breadth and depth of weather manipulation conspiracy theory is on par with that of alien encounters, so I went straight to a local source by googling “Utah weather modification.” It directs the reader to the Division of Water Resources page detailing state policy and activities regarding cloud seeding, including contact information for the only two licensed cloud seeding operators in the state.
“It’s a fun field,” says Don Griffith, president of North American Weather Consultants (NAWC), Inc. He entered the world of weather modification as an Air Force officer fresh out of engineering school at Colorado State University in 1968. A cloud seeding offensive operation over Vietnam known as Project Popeye had been greenlighted two years earlier. Griffith became involved in research to determine when conditions are optimal for producing rain from what would otherwise be unproductive clouds.
The project was a success by the Air Force’s estimation; they claimed that more than 80 percent of seeded clouds successfully dumped rain, and their efforts resulted in washing out enemy supply routes in the waning days of the Vietnam war.
The “seeds” in cloud seeding aren’t water droplets, they’re molecules that provide a catalyst to precipitate moisture that is already there. Griffith says all clouds have the potential to make rain, it’s just that without the right conditions, they don’t. Those conditions are created when molecules are introduced into clouds by weather-makers.
The first seeding experiment used dry ice. After World War II, physicists at General Electric busied themselves with improving commercial air travel. One pernicious problem was ice forming on airplane wings, and in the process of solving it, they discovered that at certain temperatures, dry ice crystallized the air around it. In other words, they figured out how to make snow. Researchers discovered that salt also works, and in the late 50s, silver iodide became the standard “seed.”
In the 1970s, the public learned about the military’s weather-manipulation shenanigans and an international response led to the end of weather manipulation for hostile purposes. Federal funding then turned into research for mitigating natural disasters such as hurricanes, hail storms and drought.
Federal funding has “dried up” and operators with NAWC have dialed in their ability to read the clouds for potential and to seed them effectively. Research is funded locally and deals mostly with improving ways to measure the effects of cloud seeding.
“We’re working with Idaho Power. Idaho Power has a big cloud seeding operation on the Snake River drainage system and their watersheds. We’re still trying to prove how it works and when it works by looking for silver in the snow to see if when we’re seeding with silver iodide it shows up in the snow pack,” Griffith says.
As far as conspiracy theories go, Griffith laughs. “Why would the government want to hurt its taxpayers?”
There are ideas for using weather manipulation to combat climate change, he says. One is to introduce sulfate particles into the air to form a haze that might absorb some of the sun’s energy before it hits the earth. With five decades in the industry though, he doesn’t see technology advancing to large-scale geoengineering, and if it did, he said, it probably wouldn’t be a good thing.
“There’s concern that if you put larger numbers of particles into the atmosphere, it might do something different than we expect,” he says. “Maybe that would become irreversible just like global warming is irreversible.”
What is certain, he says, is that water in the West is precious. Localized cloud seeding may be one more economical way of helping water supply keep up with demand.