Weather modification raises red flags, but pushes ahead

By James Janega
Chicago Tribune
Jul. 02, 2006

JUPITER, Fla. - In a field brimming with optimistic and untested ideas, entrepreneur Peter Cordani has one of the boldest: airdrop 400 tons of superabsorbent powder into an approaching hurricane.

The powder would sap water from the hurricane, in theory slowing it and saving lives and millions of dollars. The project is in its infancy, facing skeptical scientists and daunting challenges. Its creator has spent $1 million already and must raise much more.

"We know it would suck the moisture out," he said. "The only thing we don't know about is the (impact on a) hurricane and the aftereffects."

Finding the answers could be the next step on the ambitious edge of a field called weather modification, an industry operating with scant government regulation and hardly any scientific proof its methods work.

A holdover from 1950s-era scientific theory, weather modification has drawn renewed interest with the growth of technology and 21st-century weather concerns. Its next aspirations - to combat Atlantic hurricanes or Western drought - may well prove the most far-reaching.

Weather modification already operates at a staggering scope. Projects in some three-dozen countries seek to save wine crops, ease drought and kill fog. The Chinese government spends $40 million a year to seed clouds for rain. Canadian insurance companies pay to suppress hailstorms blamed for crop damage.

In the U.S. there were 53 reported weather-modification projects last year with a combined price of more than $5 million, according to interviews and records filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is required to keep track of such projects.

About 1,900 pounds of silver iodide was scattered last year to tweak atmospheric moisture above 102,000 square miles out West - a patch of sky nearly twice the size of Iowa. An additional 30 projects already are booked for this year.

"It's like a religion. (Whether it works) depends on who you talk to and what you believe," said Steve Schmitzer, the Denver Water Board's chief of water resources analysis.

Where skeptics and proponents agree is that no one knows exactly how cloud seeding works, or how well - if at all.

The people paying to do weather modification aren't eager to stop and study it, an approach raising red flags with scientists.

"You're really playing with fire, because if you don't understand the fundamentals of what you're doing, you have no ability to predict the consequence of your actions," said Michael Garstang, a University of Virginia atmospheric scientist involved in a 2003 report on weather modification for the National Academy of Sciences. It called for fundamental study. "It's derelict not to have funded research," he said.

The rise, fall and rebirth of modern weather modification is an amusing and tantalizing tale.

It begins with Vincent Schaefer, a high-school dropout, apprentice toolmaker and tree surgery correspondence student taken in by a Nobel laureate with a shared a love of the outdoors who took him to the General Electric labs in New York as a research assistant.

Among other things, Schaefer studied ice, and in he 1946 tried to modify the weather by dumping dry-ice shavings from an airplane and making snow from cold fog. Soon after, meteorologist Bernard Vonnegut discovered silver iodide did the same.

After that, almost anything seemed possible. Parched states took up cloud seeding. The Soviet Union toyed with using warm Atlantic water to melt polar ice and open northern ports. From 1962 to 1983, the U.S. government tried to weaken hurricanes with silver iodide seeding.

All but the local programs eventually were shelved as infeasible or ineffective.

"The experiments I thought were successes 25 years ago have fallen under the guns of people who did careful statistical analysis," said Hugh Willoughby, a former NOAA Hurricane Research Division director, cautious proponent of weather modification's potential and researcher at Florida International University.

By the 1980s, the idea of weather modification - including cloud seeding - became a taboo in serious scientific circles, he said. Research spending dropped from a high of $20 million a year in the late 1970s to less than $500,000, the National Academy noted in 2003.

Its report called for more research funding but was ignored.

Had it not been for persistent drought in Western states, followed by a flurry of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, that's probably where the U.S. would have left things.

After years of lobbying centered in her home state of Texas, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison proposed in March 2005 that a federal board be formed to draft weather-modification policies and devise ways to carry them out.

When the bill cleared the Senate science committee, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy raised a host of concerns - it might rob one region's rain to feed another; it could fuel global warming suspicions; it might violate treaties.

John Marburger, director of the technology office, assured Hutchison the White House would study the need for a new board. But freighted by two decades of scorn, supporters say, the effort fell apart.

Government support or not, the weather-modification industry has pushed ahead.

Weather-modification experts haul ice nuclei generators into the mountains each autumn, setting the roaring cloud seeders near Sierra whitebark pines and Wyoming alpine meadows. From the cockpits of Cheyennes and Cessnas, they buzz fields of Kansas dryland corn and Texas wheat in the spring, their wings bulging with glaciogenic flares. They have soggy clouds in sight and plans to herd atmospheric moisture in mind.

When doubts arise about their ability to make it rain, reduce hail or add snow, people in weather modification cite their own research, supportive economic studies and anecdotal evidence.

Four operators undertake about half such projects. Along with the Desert Research Institute - Nevada's non-profit, university-affiliated research lab - are three private companies: Atmospherics Inc., North American Weather Consultants and Western Weather Consultants.

"It's a close-knit community," said Don Griffith, president of North American Weather Consultants. "Silver iodide, it won't dissolve in almost anything. It is, however, soluble in blood - once you get into this field, you're hooked."

Local water boards, county and state governments spend millions of dollars each year to fund these companies.

North Dakota alone pays $650,000 to $700,000 a year in tax money for hail reduction, said state Atmospheric Resource Board Director Darin Langerud. Seven states in the Colorado River basin - Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming - are seeking to formalize and expand cloud seeding.

But even Westerners paying for it aren't 100 percent convinced that cloud seeding performs as advertised.

"The great question out there is, `What would the snow have been like had it not been for cloud seeding?'" said Rick Brown, acting deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

While the National Academy agreed mankind can affect the weather, its 2003 study cited a lack of "unequivocal scientific evidence" that weather modification did it. On the other hand, statements by the American Meteorological Society and others support the effectiveness of winter cloud-seeding projects, crediting them with adding 5 percent to 20 percent to snowfall in target watersheds, which then melts into reservoirs.

Research involving computer modeling might help decide the issue.

"There's a real clear model for convincing people," said Willoughby, the former NOAA Hurricane Research Division director. "Go in a model and tweak the innards to simulate an effect. It's not as much fun as climbing into a plane, flying into a hurricane and dumping the stuff into the clouds, but it could be really convincing if it's done right."

In fact, jumping into an airplane is exactly what Cordani, the entrepreneur, has done.

The businessman, 45, is chief executive of an absorbent products company called Dyn-O-Mat - named for its first product, a mat to absorb oil spills under garaged cars.

The absorbent element, a non-toxic polyacrylamide, can be made into powder. In water it turns instantly to cool jelly, then dissolves again in salt water. This is what he wants to drop on hurricane clouds.

The closest Cordani came to doing it was July 19, 2001, when he leased a plane to drop several hundred pounds of prototype gel on a thunderstorm 10 miles off West Palm Beach, Fla.

Television cameras rolled from helicopters and nearby boats, with video of the falling powder showing the cloud collapsing on itself like a falling building.

Cordani might be dismissed altogether if it weren't for the possibility his idea could work - not by making a hurricane disappear but by disrupting the orderly growth of its winds.

"It would seem to tend to weaken a storm," said Peter Ray, a hurricane researcher at Florida State University, supporter of Cordani and proponent of computer modeling. "How it all plays out is difficult to say without a careful scientific analysis. If that were done properly, we would know with a high degree of confidence whether it would work."

Feeling he hasn't gotten a fair shake from the rest of academic and governmental officialdom, Cordani has turned his attention to stringent computer models.

He has made overtures for funding from oil companies, insurance businesses and the government. Figuring he might need to drop a lot of powder, he's working with an Oregon company that modified a 747 to fight forest fires. His first tests with the plane may come this summer.

Actually taking on a hurricane may take a fleet of four or five planes, Cordani guesses, perhaps flying more than once. Field tests and computer models will determine how much powder and how many planes, he says.

Still, for a man greeted with frozen smiles at hurricane conferences and whose office is wallpapered with newspaper clippings about hurricane devastation, Cordani is demonstrably optimistic about his chances.

He keeps two bags packed with product samples and information, in case a last-minute summons comes to make his case before the people who draft U.S. weather policy.

"All of a sudden," he said, "in the last couple of months, weather modification is a good thing again."

Related: Owning the Weather: A documentary that looks at the history of weather modification and its use by the military.

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