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Focus on Agriculture

September 17, 2012

Rainmaking Deserves a Fresh Look

By Stewart Truelsen

In the 1950s movie “The Rainmaker,” Burt Lancaster played a smooth-talking con man named Bill Starbuck who promises to bring rain to drought-ridden western towns. Starbuck also sold rods with a gizmo on top to prevent hailstorms.

This image of the rainmaker is all too familiar to Dr. Joseph Golden, president of the Weather Modification Association. According to him, “The image of the industry ranges from witchcraft to shysters and snake oil salesmen to unproven claims, and there are elements of truth in all of those.”

With the 2012 drought expected to cost the nation in excess of $10 billion, maybe it’s time to give weather modification another look. However, conditions have to be right for it to work. According to Golden, “Any rainfall enhancement effort requires suitable clouds, and during drought periods, especially the record-breaking one we are in, suitable clouds are at a premium.”

In addition, most cloud-seeding projects are done on a countywide basis. Trying to bring rain to a large area like the nation’s breadbasket is beyond reach at this time. Golden is more optimistic in the short-run about using weather modification to divert hurricanes. He and several colleagues have just published a scientific paper about new, viable approaches to weakening and altering the path of hurricanes.

With potential savings to the economy of billions of dollars, to say nothing of the human hardship that could be spared, one might think weather modification receives support from the federal government, but it does not. Golden describes himself as the Gen. Custer of federal research programs. He’s been shot at a lot in seeking funding.

Today, there is no federal program supporting weather modification research in the United States. In the past, government involvement included a secret program during the Vietnam War to extend monsoon rains to slow down enemy troop movements. Another program of the same era, Project Stormfury, attempted to disrupt hurricanes.

Cloud-seeding can be done from the air using specially equipped aircraft or from the ground. Silver iodide crystals and dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) are two cloud seeding agents that can be emitted by flares attached to planes. A newer method, hygroscopic cloud–seeding, uses a highly concentrated salt solution.

Golden believes there is a need for a fresh look at the possibilities of weather modification in addition to addressing research needs. Agricultural producers would be among the biggest beneficiaries. Weather modification efforts generally take place west of the Mississippi River, and agriculture is the largest customer. A number of successful programs to increase precipitation or suppress hail have been around for years but receive little national attention.

Stewart Truelsen is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.