A growing number of western states, water districts and even ski areas are spending a lot of money on cloud seeding -- despite uncertainty about its effectiveness.
The idea that climate-altering technological fixes could be used to alter weather patterns is getting more attention from scientists, economists, policymakers and the media. And while well-publicized schemes to increase rainfall, snowfall or the whiteness of clouds may seem like something straight out of a science fiction novel, geoengineering, as defined by the National Academy of Sciences as "large-scale engineering of our environment in order to combat or counteract the effects of changes in atmospheric chemistry," is not only being discussed as a tool that could some day used to fight global warming, 'cloud seeding', is currently being deployed in countries around the world -- and has been in use across the American West for over 40 years.
But it's not only being employed in the U.S., Australia, France, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Venezuela all have significant cloud-seeding programs underway. And in China, the government is spending $100 million on cloud-seeding annually in the hopes of increasing mountain snowfall, and ultimately boosting spring run-off to increase available water supplies.
In the United States, where cloud-seeding operations have been going on for over forty years, the momentum and resources behind cloud seeding has paled in comparison to that of its global counterparts -- that is, until recently.
Thanks to a number of state-funded and public-private partnerships cloud-seeding is undergoing a resurgence in the American west, despite the inconclusiveness about its overall effectiveness.
Cloud-seeding: A new trend with an old technology
The most conclusive early research on cloud seeding in the United States came from a seeding project above Fremont Pass in Colorado between the towns of Leadville, Breckenridge and Vail in the 1960s. That program produced what equated to a 10 percent increase in snowpack -- which was good enough for water officials from Colorado. Today, Colorado spends about $700,000 a year on cloud seeding programs--which does not include smaller and private projects not funded by the state--doubling the amount spent on cloud seeding over the last 10 years.
San Juan Mountains, the Gunnison Basin, and Grand Mesa, all regions with ski areas. Vail Resorts also continued its 32-year-old seeding operation for Vail and Beaver Creek, Colorado’s longest-continuous seeding operation.
Further to the east, and on the other side of the Continental Divide, the Denver Water Board and Winter Park Resort have joined forces on a $110,000 cloud seeding project for the 2009-2010 season. The Denver Water Board had previously tried cloud seeding in Grand County in 2003 after a heavy drought year of 2002.
Colorado has seeding operations scattered all over the state and sponsored by end users as 1,000 miles away.
“We’re believers down here,” Tom Ryan, resource specialist with the Metropolitan Water District of Southwestern California, told The Durango Telegraph (Colo). “The lower-basin folks believe it works. We believe that the science is adequate to move forward.”
Ryan's organization spent $152,000 this winter seeding clouds in the Upper Colorado Basin far away in southwestern corner of Colorado. Money for cloud-seeding from lower-basin states like California, Arizona and Nevada has more than tripled since 2006.
Government agencies and utilities from California to North Dakota spend an estimated $15 million a year on cloud seeding in hopes of boosting the winter snowpack.
Cloud-seeders say they can boost snowpack 10 to 15 percent, as long as there are clouds to seed: seeding cannot make snow fall from out of blue skies.
Photo: North American Interstate Weather Modification Council