Can cloud seeding help the West’s drought?

States consider weather modification to make it rain.

 

A dry irrigation canal near Calexico, California.

This story was originally published by the Guardian as part of their two-year series, This Land is Your Land, examining the threats facing America’s public lands, with support from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and is republished by permission.

With three-quarters of the West gripped by a seemingly ceaseless drought, several states are increasingly embracing a drastic intervention – the modification of the weather to spur more rainfall.

The latest reports from the US Drought Monitor have provided sobering reading, with 40% of the U.S. west of the continental divide classed as being in “exceptional drought,” the most severe of four levels of drought. This is down only marginally from 47% in January, a record in the monitor’s 20-year history, and barring the arrival of a barrage of late winter storms will almost guarantee a severely parched year for Western states.

“I believe that there will be no choice in the future but to look at weather modification.”

“We haven’t had much in the way of winter rain or snow, which is concerning, as we would hope to put a big dent in the drought,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. “It looks like it’s going to be a very tough year. We are probably looking at increased fire dangers, water restrictions and also impacts to ecosystems, such as small rivers and streams and the wildlife living there.”

The stresses of drought, upon water supplies for drinking and to supply the West’s vast agricultural systems, have prompted eight states to look to a form of weather modification called cloud seeding to stave off the worst.

Cloud seeding involves using aircraft or drones to add small particles of silver iodide, which have a structure similar to ice, to clouds.  Water droplets cluster around the particles, modifying the structure of the clouds and increasing the chance of precipitation.

“With drought still a major concern, cloud seeding is an encouraged technology for Wyoming to use based on our drought contingency plan,” said Julie Gondzar, project manager for the state’s water development office. “It is an inexpensive way to help add water to our basins, in small, incremental amounts over long periods of time.”

Cloud seeding experiments have taken place since the 1940s but until recently there was little certainty the method had any positive impact. But research last year managed to pinpoint snowfall that “unambiguously” came from cloud seeding and Gondzar said officials in Wyoming and elsewhere have “concluded that cloud seeding works, and is an effective way to aid in drought-stricken areas, with no negative environmental impacts.”

Others are now looking to join in, including the Four Corners states – Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico – that have been ravaged by the most extreme version of the latest drought. “We are very hopeful for significant funding this year with an eye towards enough to do the entire state in the future,” said Rick Ledbetter, a supervisor for the Roosevelt soil and water district in New Mexico who has run a pilot scheme for cloud seeding. “I believe that there will be no choice in the future but to look at weather modification.”

Experts who have studied cloud seeding point out that it is no panacea, given it doesn’t solve the systemic causes of drought and can be tricky to implement – only certain clouds in certain weather conditions can be seeded with nascent rain, and there’s no guarantee it will break a drought even if successful.

“It needs to be part of a broader water plan that involves conserving water efficiently, we can’t just focus on one thing.”

“I don’t think cloud seeding will solve the problem but it can help,” said Katja Friedrich, a University of Colorado researcher who has studied the issue. “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.”

While states attempt to formulate a response to the growing threat of drought, advocates warn that poorer people, and people of color, are most likely to suffer from a water-constrained future. Miguel Hernandez, from the non-profit Comite Civico de Valle group in Imperial Valley, southern California, said the drought has brought ongoing issues for Latino agricultural workers, some of whom have to resort to using irrigation canals for cooking water or for brushing their teeth.

“Getting them good drinkable water is a priority,” he said. “We have issues with water diverted away to metropolitan areas too, leaving us with little to no water in our region. The drought causes a lot of different issues here.”

The current drought has been building since an exceptionally hot summer last year but the past 20 years can be seen collectively as a “megadrought” in the West, Fuchs said. Scientists have pointed to the climate crisis as a key cause.

“There has been very little relief and this could well be a precursor to what can be expected for the West in the future,” Fuchs said. “It’s kind of scary to think that way.”

Oliver Milman is an environment reporter for The Guardian. 
Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.