Wyoming Tests Ability to Change the Weather

Clouds near Wheatland, Wyo. i i

A view of clouds north of Wheatland, Wyo. During the next five years, researchers plan to seed clouds over various mountain ranges in the state. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
Clouds near Wheatland, Wyo.

A view of clouds north of Wheatland, Wyo. During the next five years, researchers plan to seed clouds over various mountain ranges in the state.

Jeff Brady, NPR

Water districts and ski resorts have been seeding clouds for decades trying to increase rain and snowfall. But they've been doing it without proof of how cloud-seeding works and under what conditions it works best. Wyoming hopes to answer some of those questions by taking a closer look at clouds.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The state of Wyoming wants to change the weather. That might seem ambitious for the nation's least populous state, but Wyoming is spending nearly nine million dollars to study cloud seeding. Many believe the practice increases snowfall, even though the science to prove that isn't complete.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Think of the clouds above as a river of water vapor, just floating by. People capture surface water in reservoirs and drill wells for ground water. Now some in water-desperate states like Wyoming are asking, why not tap into the water in those clouds?

But that requires the seemingly super-human power to change the weather; the kind of thing a Hollywood villain might need to rule the world. Sean Connery played such a villain in the 1998 film THE AVENGERS.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AVENGERS)

SEAN CONNERY: (As Sir August De Wynter) The weather is no longer in God's hands, but in mine.

Unidentified Announcer: To stop a madman --

CONNERY: You will buy your weather from me.

Announcer: — on a mission of destruction.

CONNERY: Hundreds of millions will die, they'll drown, burn -

END SOUNDBITE

BRADY: In real life, all over the West, water districts and even ski resorts have been seeding clouds for decades, trying to make it snow more. But they've been doing it without definitive proof of how cloud seeding works and under what conditions it works best.

Now, Wyoming hopes to answer some of those questions by taking a close-up look at clouds. They've installed scientific instruments on a twin-engine plane that's waiting for action at a hangar at the Cheyenne Airport.

Terry Krauss works for a state contractor, Weather Modification, Incorporated. He points to sensors mounted under the wings of the plane, and then he pulls open the side door.

(SOUNDBITE FROM CHEYENNE AIRPORT)

TERRY KRAUSS: Open the door, that's fine. Okay, inside the aircraft you can see our special equipment for the atmospheric research. And this rack, it houses the computer. All of the data are recorded once per second as we fly through the cloud.

BRADY: On-board lasers quickly count water droplets and even capture images of ice crystals that are combining to form snowflakes. But those ice crystals won't form unless the water vapor in the clouds has something to cling to, like a speck of dust.

Cloud seeding is supposed to help this process along by filling the clouds with lots more particles. In this case, the smoke produced by burning silver iodide.

KRAUSS: So the basic principle behind cloud seeding is that our silver iodide smoke particles will initiate ice, and these ice crystals will grow at the expense of those water drops, and grow to large enough size, collect together as snowflakes, and fall as snow over the mountains.

BRADY: The second piece of this project is on the ground, where researchers will plug data gathered in the air into computers. Work like this wasn't feasible just 25 years ago, according to Ruloff Brunchez (ph). He's with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which will analyze the data for Wyoming.

RULOFF BRUNCHEZ: The numerical modeling and computing capability has increased tremendously. We can run our numerical models at higher and higher resolutions, with more and more physics in them.

BRADY: And there are better pictures of the clouds now, from weather radars and satellites. Without this new technology in decades past, there was a lot of unsubstantiated claims about cloud seeding, and it got a bad name in the scientific community.

Brunchez says Wyoming's project will put this field on a more solid scientific footing. He says it may even reveal other causes of precipitation, such as air pollution.

BRUNCHEZ: Maybe you and I, driving our motorcar, we are cloud seeding.

BRADY: Brunchez hopes Wyoming's research will prompt others to take on similar projects. He says concerns about water supplies aren't going away soon, especially in the arid West, where population is rapidly increasing.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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