One of the more unusual-sounding bills being considered by the state legislature comes up for a hearing Wednesday. It’s titled “An Act repealing the statute governing weather modification experimentation” and I might be one of the few people who knew immediately what it’s all about just from the title.
If you want to know, too, here’s a GraniteGeek column from 2013, the last time a similar bill came up. (Note that I mention a 2005 story, but that one is lost in the ether):
Today’s fun fact: Since 1985, it has been legal for state employees to modify the weather. Not that they have, mind you.
I can’t find any evidence of state-funded weather modification since a 1964 rain-making effort (more on that below). I don’t know what prompted the state to pass a 1985 law, which explicitly made such efforts legal. Weather modification, it seems, is not exactly a hot topic.
“It has almost been off the radar, as far as much being done about it,” said James Koermer, professor of meteorology at Plymouth State University. (NOTE: He is no longer at PSU)
By the way, we’re not talking about climate modification, a.k.a. geoengineering, to reduce global warming by putting reflective particles in the upper atmosphere. Weather modification is smaller, more localized, and much older. Realistically, it means seeding clouds, either from airplanes or from “guns” on the ground, in hopes that you can make it rain or snow for a little while.
Seeding involves placing lots of small crystals (usually sodium iodide) into cold clouds, usually from containers on board airplanes but sometimes from ground-based “guns” of various types. Moisture clumps around the particles, until the clumps are big enough to fall from the sky as rain or, if it’s cold close to the ground, as snow.
It definitely works in some circumstances, says Koermer. He mentioned ice fog banks that form over Alaska runways so thickly that flights are grounded. Planes fly through the fog at low levels, dispensing sodium crystals: “It’s amazing all the stuff that precipitates out – it’s like they created a hallway through the fog bank.”
So what’s the problem with cloud seeding?
“Clouds are not a nice controlled laboratory environment,” as Koermer put it.
It is very difficult to prove that seeding a cloud caused it to rain, since there are so many variables, and it’s even more difficult to control the cloud once you’re done. Imagine a ski area seeding a cloud, which then moves away before the snow falls, only to hover over a city and bury it.
Cloud seeding is practiced by a few Western states in hopes of battling drought and is embraced by the Chinese, who like the idea of the government controlling the sky, but in general it hasn’t lived up to earlier hopes
Speaking of earlier, what about that 1964 New Hampshire effort, mentioned above?
According to an old Nashua Telegraph clipping unearthed by Dean Shalhoup, Telegraph staffer and king of the history hounds, New Hampshire fired up 29 cloud-seeding machines to see what would happen in November 1964.
The machines were gas-fired burners that vaporized silver iodide so they would drift aloft and hopefully turn into droplets. The state spent a whopping $12,300 (big money in 1964) on a three-week program.
The 1964 clipping shows a picture of Nashua’s machine and said the effort seemed unlikely to succeed because the air was too dry and cloud-free, and quoted the “supervisor of the New Hampshire cloud-seeding operation,” a man named Charles Wetterer.
I interviewed Wetterer’s son about this topic back in 2005. He said his dad, an Air Force meteorologist in World War II, started a cloud-seeding business in the 1950s, the technology’s heyday.
“They’d go to northern Quebec to seed clouds for hydro plants, and down into the Carolinas and the South for the tobacco crop, and into Cuba for the sugar crop,” he told me in 2005. “I remember driving around in vans and trucks, putting out (the rainmaking machines) … but I don’t know what came of it.”
Nor do I. I could never find any more information on the program, then or now. It remains a mystery.
By the way, the reason I’m writing about this is that there was a proposal earlier this year to overturn the 1985 law – that is, to make it illegal for state employees to engage in weather-modification experiments.
Rep. Stella Tremblay, R-Auburn, sponsored that proposal. In response to my query, she said it was spurred partly by concerns from residents about “chem trails,” the idea that the government is doing something secret to our weather, visible via the contrails that extend behind jets overhead.
Those contrails are caused by water vapor in jet exhaust, but some conspiracy theorists think otherwise.
Tremblay’s proposal was killed by a committee before coming to a vote, so the following law is still on the books:
“12-F:1 Weather Modification Experimentation. – Any department or agency of the state may, with the approval of the governor and council and within the limits of appropriated funds or by means of gifts, donations or grants, engage in and undertake experimentation in the techniques and methods for weather modification, and may cooperate therein with the federal government, with authorized agencies of other states, and with interested persons and organizations.”