Agriculture is arguably the state’s largest industry, with tourism lagging close behind. As agriculture is reliant upon the weather, and in particular precipitation, some are encouraging the practice of “cloud seeding” in the Big Sky State to help provide the moisture necessary for bountiful harvests. But is the practice safe, and is it a good idea?
Cloud seeding, also known as weather modification, is the practice of flying into clouds and dispersing “ice nuclei” that alters the chemical composition of clouds and makes rainfall more likely. Most studies show that cloud seeding has marginal if any, effects. Others claim that cloud seeding was responsible for various catastrophic results, such as in Dubai, where terrible floods have been blamed upon the desert nation experimenting with the practice.
Last October, the Rain Enhancement Research Program tweeted that the National Center of Meteorology (NCM) had conducted eight cloud-seeding operations in a matter of days. According to Wired Magazine, “The tweet was posted on October 7—the same day that water pumps were brought into Dubai’s Discovery Gardens neighborhood to remove floodwater.”
It’s hard to argue that cloud seeding doesn’t work somewhat. As of mid-November last year, Dubai had conducted 185 cloud-seeding operations and the National Center of Meterology claimed that the activity “increases rainfall by an average of 10 to 15 percent and, in certain conditions, as much as 30 percent.”
Other nations, like China, are also taking credit for their good weather fortune and claim that their cloud seeding operations are responsible for rainfall.
Jeffrey French, the assistant professor of atmospheric science at the University of Wyoming, said, “For the last 60 years, people have tried to link precipitation directly to cloud seeding. And the problem, in a statistical sense, is there is so much natural variability in precipitation; particularly in warmer clouds, like those that they’re trying to seed in the UAE, there’s a lot of variation that occurs naturally and that we as scientists can’t necessarily explain.”
The National Academy of Sciences has published studies showing that cloud seeding does not work. The U.S. National Research Center also has published studies that cast doubt upon the efficacy of cloud seeding to cause rainfall. Meanwhile, almost everyone agrees that if cloud seeding does work, its effects are marginal.
Nonetheless, five western states in the U.S. don’t allow cloud seeding, including Montana. Some are not only unconvinced the technology works, but that it can be harmful.
The most common chemicals used to seed clouds include silver iodide, potassium iodide, and carbon dioxide (dry ice). In addition, liquid propane has also been used for higher temperature seeding. Other materials, like common table salt, have also been used.
The question for health-conscious Montanans is what exactly the health consequences are for silver iodide, potassium iodide, and carbon dioxide being released in the atmosphere over populated areas (or for that matter, which may be transported to other places through the naturally-occuring water cycle.
SB29, sponsored by Butch Gillespie (R-SD9), will provide for cloud seeding over the Montana skies. Requested by the Water Policy Interim Committee, the bill will grant the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to tools and funding necessary to drop the chemicals over Montana air space. You can find the bill here. It has been passed on its second reading in the Montana Senate, 32 to 18 and is expected to go the House for consideration.
But what are the health ramifications of cloud seeding?
With a health hazard rating of 2, silver iodide can cause temporary incapacitation or possible residual injury to humans and other mammals with intense or chronic exposure. Granted, the amounts of silver iodide released in cloud seeding operations has been called, “minute” or “small.”
Research 50 years ago and analysis by the former Snowy Mountains Authority led to the cessation of the cloud seeding program in the 1950s. It was, at one time, rejected in Australia on environmental grounds because of concerns about the protected species.
Sam Reeves, a chemical biologist with the Uniersity of Boliva, said, “Silver iodide is basically a dangerous drug. In addition to being a bleach and an explosive, it is extremely addictive.”
He went on, “In concentrated doses, silver iodide offers a short, but very intense high. When dispersed into the air, however, the effects are minimal and gradual. By drug seeding the atmosphere, the government is effectively building up the tolerance of every United States citizen to silver iodide.”
Reeves added a conspiratorial thought, “Silver iodide increases dopamine production, which is a good thing. Feelings of euphoria and confidence are something everyone can use. The alertness and increased energy are the icing on the cake.”
Is the government really trying to dope us up from the air?
While the answer is “probably not,” the questions alone should make Montana reconsider toying with the weather. While the health consequences of cloud seeding are yet to be definitively determined, so are the claims that the process for sure causes rainfall. While oppressive regimes, like the UAE and China are quick to take credit for rain, scientists in the United States have only cautiously said the process might work.
For all intents and purposes, the jury is still out on cloud seeding. Now, the Montana legislature needs to determine if we want to drop chemicals from the air for a process that might work.