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Does "Seeding" Clouds with Silver
Iodide Really Make it Rain?

In a time when water shortages and drought are the norm in the western region of the United States, cloud seeding has emerged as a bit of a modern-day rain dance.

water shortage

Water shortages across the globe are forcing scientists to take control of the whether -- in hopes of making it rain or snow.

If you haven't yet heard, cloud seeding is a form of whether modification that involves "seeding" clouds with silver iodide, salt or dry ice in the hopes of increasing the size of water or ice particles in the clouds to, ultimately, get more rain.

It was developed in 1946 by Bernard Vonnegut, a scientist (and, yes, the brother of famous author Kurt). Since then, the United States has devoted millions of dollars to developing it. In fact, it was even used to increase rain along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War so supplies would be harder to transport.

Although cloud seeding has been used to alter fog (systems are in use to modify fog at several major airports), hail (to protect crops from damage), wind and lightning, most projects are done to enhance either rain or snowfall (and therefore increase spring runoff).

Does Cloud Seeding Work?

Cloud-seeding projects have been developed in 43 countries, including the United States, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Italy, West Africa, Mexico, China, and the United Arab Emirates, according to the World Meteorological Organization. But do they actually work?

According to the Utah Division of Water Resources, yes. They say that winter seeding projects in the state generally increase winter precipitation by 14 percent to 20 percent.

And as for costs, which range anywhere from $7 to $18 per acre-foot, according to the Nevada State Cloud Seeding Program, "the benefits from the extra water far outweigh the operational costs of seeding," says Utah's Division of Water Resources.

That said, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) points out the cloud seeding is "big business." States in the arid regions of the United States spend millions of dollars (usually paid to private "cloud-seeding specialists") every year in the hopes of getting more rain, and the results proving cloud seeding's effectiveness, according to UCAR, have been inconclusive.

Cloud seeding

Cloud seeding may increase winter precipitation by 14-20 percent, but studies are still underway to determine if this is a real benefit, or just the normal variance of natural weather.

Assuming cloud seeding does produce rain as planned, the pay offs could be huge.

A 10 percent increase in snowpack in a targeted area would provide between 130,000 and 260,000 acre-feet of water in additional runoff each spring, according to The Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC).

The extra water is valued anywhere between $2.4 million and $4.9 million, and costs $6.60 to $13.00 per acre-foot -- much cheaper than other water in Wyoming (water from Wyoming's High Savery Dam costs $158.93 per acre-foot, according to the WWDC).

Is This Really Natural, or Are There Unforeseen "Side Effects"?

Not everyone agrees that cloud seeding is a good idea. Skeptics claim that cloud seeding works because it's done in clouds that are more likely to produce rain anyway, while others fear whether modification could one day be used in "eco-terrorism" -- as a weapon or method to create natural disasters at will.

However, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources, "no significant environmental effects" have been noted due to cloud seeding, "including projects of 30 to 40 years duration."

Still, some people maintain that it's risky to tamper with the natural order of the weather.

"People are sometimes concerned about changing what they think is natural weather," says National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) project scientist Dan Breed, "but studies have shown that in some areas we're already affecting clouds unintentionally through increases in airborne particulates and other pollution."

"If cloud seeding is shown to work," he adds, "it may help counteract the effects of air pollution as well as ease those of natural drought cycles."

Wyoming currently has a project underway that they hope will put an end to the controversy over cloud seeding -- via an experiment using "sophisticated scientific evaluation."

"The challenge is to determine whether snowfall levels would have occurred anyway, or clearly resulted from the seeding," says NCAR scientist Roelof Bruintjes. "Even a 10% increase would fall within the range of natural variability of a single storm or a whole season."

"To attribute cause," Bruintjes adds, "we need this kind of careful, objective analysis independent of the operations."

As it stands, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, California, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are all either using or experimenting with whether modification programs, including cloud seeding.

Recommended Reading

The Water Shortage Crisis in America & the World: A Quick Overview of One of the Most Dangerous Crises Humankind has Ever Faced

Severe Weather: The Most to Least Fatal & the Key Steps to Save Your Life


Utah Division of Water Resources

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Nevada State Cloud Seeding Program

North American Interstate Whether Modification Council

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