Story at a glance
- Cloud seeding has been around since the 1940s, and more than 50 countries around the world have tried it.
- As climate change has worsened droughts around the country, more states are hoping to try cloud seeding.
- The National Integrated Drought Information System says that 40 percent of the U.S. is currently in a drought, with 32 states experiencing a moderate to severe drought this week.
Portions of the U.S. are experiencing some of the worst droughts in recent history, but some scientists are pinning hope on technology that could activate more precipitation and expand local water supplies.
Cloud seeding is a climate technology that introduces ice nuclei (silver iodide) into winter storms by removing ground generators located at high elevation points and deploying airplanes to release special burn flares within storm clouds, according to Idaho Power.
By manually introducing more ice nuclei into winter storms, scientists estimate that if a storm has the right conditions, like abundant water (vapor or small liquid droplets) and the appropriate temperatures, cloud seeding could eventually increase precipitation. The process could trigger more snow, which would eventually melt and lead to more water flow.
Cloud seeding has been around since the 1940s, and more than 50 countries around the world have tried it, but as climate change has worsened in recent years the practice has taken on renewed popularity.
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) estimates that 40 percent of the U.S. is currently in a drought, with 32 states experiencing a moderate to severe drought this week.
In Idaho, cloud seeding is a strategy the state has found success in, even passing legislation to encourage cloud seeding projects and research. Idaho Power, a private utility company that serves a 24,000 square mile area from southern Idaho to eastern Oregon, has been doing cloud seeding work since 2013. The company partnered with Idaho Water Resources Board to conduct cloud seeding efforts in the upper Snake River basin in 2008. Then again in 2015 the company, at the request of local irrigators, expanded its cloud seeding program to cover the Wood River and Boise River basins.
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) published research last year that they believe demonstrated, “unambiguously that cloud seeding can boost snowfall across a wide area if the atmospheric conditions are favorable.”
The revelation from UCAR came after researchers analyzed results of a cloud seeding experiment in Idaho during the winter season of 2017. The results found injecting clouds with silver iodide generated, “precipitation at multiple sites at the ground, sometimes creating snowfall where none had existed.”
However, another extensive study conducted in Wyoming from 2008 to 2013 found that cloud seeding within seedable clouds can increase precipitation by about 3 percent, but scientists said the results didn’t meet the threshold for statistical significance. That means scientists could not say with certainty that any extra snowfall during that six-year period was due to cloud seeding or just chance luck.
Some experts told The Guardian that cloud seeding doesn’t solve systemic causes of drought and can be tricky to conduct since only certain clouds can be seeded through burn flares and there’s no guarantee that enough precipitation will be produced to break a drought, even if the cloud seeding is successful.
Katja Freidrich, researcher at the University of Colorado, told The Guardian that she doesn’t “think cloud seeding will solve the problem but it can help. It needs to be part of a broader water plan that involves conserving water efficiently, we can’t just focus on one thing. Also there is a question whether you will be able to do it in a changing climate – you need cold temperatures and once it gets too warm you aren’t able to do the cloud seeding.”
Some states are hoping to try cloud seeding anyway, like in New Mexico where the state is facing varying degrees of extreme to moderate drought. Rick Ledbetter, a supervisor for the Roosevelt soil and water district in New Mexico, also told The Guardian that “we are very hopeful for significant funding this year with an eye towards enough to do the entire state in the future. I believe that there will be no choice in the future but to look at weather modification.”
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