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An interesting look at modern rainmaking and our (slight) ability to exert control

REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang
The purpose of building better clouds is to shift precipitation toward places and times more to our liking.

Amid news of the freakish floods northwest of Denver and the reappearance of “flash drought” in Minnesota comes an interesting look at the modern art of weather modification, or what we used to call rainmaking:

Any time he wants, Arlen Huggins can find out if he’s making it snow in Colorado. From his desk in a spacious, sunny office in Reno, Nevada, Huggins can pull up a screen on his computer and look at charts tracking relative humidity, temperature, wind direction, and wind speed at the Winter Park ski area, about an hour and a half west of Denver.

The charts also show him the flow rate and flame temperature for a silver iodide generator perched near the resort’s 12,000-foot summit. He can control the generator from his desk. Its purpose is to build better clouds.

And of course the purpose of building better clouds, as the OnEarth article explains, is to shift precipitation toward places and times more to our liking. Or, at least, to the liking of people who pay the rainmakers.

This highly engaging piece is less about the policy implications of altering rainfall patterns than about the cool new ways of doing so, and the still somewhat open question of how much “control” can actually be achieved.  

As it happens, most of what’s changing in “weather mod” is remote control and sensing. The basic technique of seeding clouds with an jet of superheated silver iodide hasn’t really changed since World War II:

Cloud seeding with aerosolized silver iodide was invented in 1946 by the GE scientist Bernard Vonnegut—the novelist Kurt’s older brother. A promising young chemist, Vonnegut was working with the Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir and his associate Vincent Schaefer when the pair discovered that seeding clouds with dry ice could encourage them to precipitate.

Vonnegut figured out that silver iodide would do the same thing—and last longer. When GE announced the discoveries, newspapers and magazines ran stories declaring that the nation was finally going to do something about the weather.

GE began working with the military on Project Cirrus, a series of weather-control experiments designed to make rain, divert hurricanes, disperse fog, and quench forest fires. At the same time, the Weather Bureau conducted experiments of its own and began publicly denouncing the Project Cirrus claims. The debate between weather mod believers and skeptics has raged ever since, but the converts have been slowly gaining ground.

Limited influence

Nowadays, OnEarth reports, there are more than 60 cloud-seeding companies working in the U.S., mostly in the arid West, with a focus on raising river flows, enlarging snowpack and preventing hail (by getting clouds to let loose sooner).

Does it work? The answer appears to be: sort of.

The weather mod specialists who spoke to OnEarth stressed that they can’t make rain out of thin air, and they can’t make rainclouds perform on cue.

All they can do is raise the chances of precipitation at a particular time and place — by maybe 10 percent, according to an analysis to be published sometime next year. Or, raise the volume of participation to some degree; one practitioner who claims a 26 percent increase in rain from seeded clouds appears to be something of a star in his field.

It’s interesting that none of the weather mod guys in this story (and guys they were, every one) seemed untroubled by doubts about any larger implications of their messing around with precipitation patterns — including the inescapable reality that, in the earth’s zero-sum cycle of rain and evaporation, making rain over here means taking rain from over there.

Yet none seemed open to the idea of larger-scale weather/climate manipulation through “geoengineering,” such as treating the atmosphere with a layer of aerosolized reflective material to bounce some solar radiation back into space.

Which is a good thing, I think, given the truly scary scenarios around such intervention — including the possibility of catastrophic cooling.

Vonnegut’s other idea

Thinking about geoengineering and the Vonnegut brothers and seed crystals set off a distant bell in my head about … Ice-Nine, wasn’t it? So I looked a little further and found this Scientific American jotting from 2007:

Writer Kurt Vonnegut died April 11th.  One of his most famous literary creations was not a character but a chemical.  Ice-Nine is a form of ice that somehow turns any liquid water it touches into more Ice-Nine.  And so, at the end of Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, the world ends, not with a bang but with a brrrr…  

The idea for Ice-Nine actually dates back to Irving Langmuir, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932.  The story goes that Langmuir was showing science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells around General Electric, where Langmuir worked for over 40 years. Langmuir allegedly mused about a form of water solid at room temperature, thinking that Wells might use the idea, which he didn’t.  But Vonnegut wound up working at GE’s PR department, found the story, and filed the nascent Ice-Nine idea away for his own future use.

Of course, that was only fiction.

Gas wells flood in Colorado

Meanwhile, speaking of the Colorado floods — in which my beloved Boulder got more than twice its average annual rainfall in a matter of days last week — I saw a disturbing new angle reported Wednesday over at accuweather.com: As many as 1,000 natural gas wells along the Front Range may have been flooded, according to early reports from areas where many roads are still closed and a lot of land is under water.

So have water- and sewage-treatment plants, as always, but from a recovery point of view the inundated drilling operations pose a very different problem. Residents in the flood zones can boil water before consuming it, safely destroying the normal bacterial and biological contaminants — including West Nile virus, which is prevalent in Colorado through October.

But that won’t work for fracking fluids and other chemicals used in natural gas production, which is intense along the Front Range. Weld County, which runs from a little northeast of Boulder to the Wyoming border,  has 18,000 gas and oil wells.  (The county’s live flood-recovery map is here.)

The piece quotes Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action’s Colorado branch:

Once those chemicals hit flood water, they get across a large swath of the landscape. Our big concern is oil and gas, and fracking chemicals, in the water. We have seen photos of oil slicks on top of the floodwaters and we are continuing to monitor all of the flooding and cleanup efforts. Oil, gas and fracking chemicals are poisonous to people and animals, and could pollute farms and drinking water supplies.

It’s great news that the EPA is engaging. We have serious concerns that because the state has so few inspectors and regulators, the industry is out there ‘self policing.’ We need EPA to step in and make sure the public and environment are protected.

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In case you missed Google’s doodle yesterday, commemorating the birthday of Léon Foucault and his famous pendulum, which made the Earth’s rotation visible to any schoolchild, it’s worth visiting here.

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