WILL IT END? Voters to decide fate of weather mod program

Fifty years ago a program began in Bowman County that would radically change the way people perceived man’s role in the control of nature. It was a program that purposely modified the weather, to suppress hail and enhance rainfall, which was to benefit local farmers and ranchers.

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By BRYCE MARTIN | N.D. Group Editor
bmartin@countrymedia.net

Fifty years ago a program began in Bowman County that would radically change the way people perceived man’s role in the control of nature. It was a program that purposely modified the weather, to suppress hail and enhance rainfall, which was to benefit local farmers and ranchers. But now it will be the decision of county residents if the program should continue.

John Palczewski, who owns and operates a farming and ranching operation south of Scranton, began circulating a petition earlier this year to place on the November election ballot a measure asking if the county’s weather modification program should end.

A popular saying around the area is that there are two things people just don’t openly discuss: politics and weather modification. Many residents, including several farmers and ranchers, echo that sentiment.

But Palczewski didn’t shy away from the task.

After amassing 358 signatures, 13 more than required, he successfully submitted the petition and it was soon after approved for the ballot.

A simple question will appear for voters: “Should the Weather Modification Authority be abolished?”

“I never have liked the program,” Palczewski said. “We watch it every year and this year it really accelerated in June.”

After Palczewski had spoken with several local farmers about the program, with them asking what could be done about it, it became his mission to finally get the question on the Bowman County ballot, something that hadn’t been done successfully in decades.

One of his first conversations was with Darin Langerud, director of the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board, which regulates weather modification within the state. Palczewski tried to explain his side.

“It takes rain out of the county,” he alleged. “It’s doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to.

“We have no business messing with Mother Nature.”

While Palczewski said he only engaged in two heated conversations while getting signatures for the petition, most seemed to agree that people should at least get to vote on the issue.

And now, because of Palczewski’s efforts, they have been afforded that opportunity.

Three Bowman natives get weather mod started in North Dakota

Cloud seeding, the name of the actual process in weather modification, began in North Dakota in the 1950s, pioneered by three Bowman County residents, farmer-rancher Wilbur Brewer and his pilot neighbors, Bill Fisher and Bill Mazaros. The three had heard of weather modification testing conducted by scientists with General Electric Co. in New York, according to historical accounts of the program’s origin, thinking it could be a solution to the problem of hail damage to crops.

They went on to found Weather Modification, Inc. in Bowman, the state’s first all-airborne commercial cloud seeding company.

Seeding first for just a few townships, then later entire counties, the program expanded and spread eastward throughout much of North Dakota. The program at that time was entirely locally sponsored.

The state didn’t get involved in regulating and permitting until 1975, at which time the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board began its oversight.

Weather Modification, Inc., relocated its headquarters to Fargo in the early 1990s and the three founding members have since passed away.

What exactly is cloud seeding?

The North Dakota Cloud Modification Project is a program that seeds clouds for hail damage reduction and rain enhancement in western North Dakota.

Counties currently participating in the program are Bowman, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward, Williams, and several townships in Slope County.

Each year during the summer months — June 1 to around Sept. 1 — a meteorologist and assistant meteorologist hired through the program live in Bowman, the District 1 operations area, and monitor cloud formation using the radar at the Bowman Municipal Airport.

Aerial cloud seeding is the process of delivering silver iodide, a seeding agent, by aircraft either at the cloud base or cloud top. According to Langerud, the methods of hail reduction and rain enhancement work together, depending on the types of clouds forming. The chemical accelerates the formation of precipitation at the expense of growing large hailstones.

When there is a cloud system that doesn’t have the capability of producing hail, the cloud can still be seeded, instead in an attempt to increase rainfall.

Why disband weather modification?

To Palczewski, the issue seems black-and-white.

“I don’t see how anybody could say it’s not taking rain away,” he explained.

But this year’s seeding operation seemed to especially irritate farmers and ranchers as it kicked off in an already dry season.

“A very good friend of mine — that’s very pro-weather mod — said he was frustrated with the program this year,” Palczewski said. “There’s no reason they should be flying every single cloud.”

Palczewski claimed the seeding accelerated the dry conditions.

It wasn’t until after Aug. 9, when rain enhancement was suspended, that this part of the state experienced its greatest amount of rainfall, nearly four-and-a-half inches.

Palczewski used that pivotal fact in his argument that cloud seeding is more than just unnecessary; that it’s actually hindering producers in in the area and even down-wind in areas like Adams County.

“As farmers and ranchers, if we get hailed out or get in a severe drought where we don’t have any rain at all, it’s an easier pill to swallow for us than the same conditions due to weather mod,” Palczewski affirmed.

Langerud suggested a contrary perspective of the program, one that he claimed is backed by scientific data and countless studies.

As an explanation as to why Bowman County saw its most active rainfall once rain enhancement was suspended, Langerud said that despite its suspension, pilots are still actively seeding for hail suppression and that still has the potential to increase rainfall.

If weather modification were disbanded, the impacts would be tremendous, according to Langerud, who has been involved with the program since 1991.

“You would expect … that rainfall would be reduced,” he said. “Without the program, you may also see a spike in crop hail losses.”

That would represent millions of dollars in lost revenues.

There have been several independent studies that scrutinized the program throughout its nearly seven decades of operation, offering statistics and scientific data that suggests the program is, indeed, effective.

Generally the precipitation during the three-month seeding period increases by 5 to 10 percent, according to Langerud. That claim is backed by observed rainfall from gauges within the seeding area, he explained.

Data to support the prevention of hail losses to crops is based upon a study of crop hail insurance. The trend in insurance claims is compared to a historical period when there was no seeding.

Langerud said evaluations have shown a reduction in crop hail losses of nearly 45 percent.

Those studies are conducted by outside entities, such as North Dakota State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, to ensure nonbiased information, he said, and rainfall studies are provided by sources such as University of North Dakota and University of Oklahoma.

“There’s a lot of scientific evidence to support the programs that are in place,” he said.

Weather modification isn’t special to North Dakota. Programs are ongoing in 10 other western states, some include summertime work, similar to North Dakota’s program, in Kansas and Texas, but also during the winter in mountain states to increase snowfall for skiing and to increase melt-water for ranching and irrigation, hydroelectric power and municipal drinking water.

A portion of the funding for Bowman County’s program comes from the county’s general fund. The total project cost is funded by an equal cost-share with the state. Around $115,000 comes from the county each year, which includes roughly $15,000 from Slope County, and the same amount comes from the state.

It’s all about risk management

“(Weather modification) is a difficult thing to explain and difficult to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt,” Langerud suggested, despite having firm scientific data. “When talking about statistics you’re always working towards eliminating doubt, but it’s rare when you get to the point where you can say unequivocally that this is the absolute answer.”

He admitted that weather modification is not a perfect program, but is just another tool for farmers and ranchers when it comes to risk management.

Langerud said there are no absolute certainties with the program: “We’re talking about risk management, spending money to manage risk.” He said it’s similar to purchasing crop insurance.

Still, Palczewski claimed that the majority of Bowman County agricultural producers don’t want the program to continue. Their chief concern, among others, remains that weather modification is taking rain away.

“There is no evidence that has been collected or evaluated on this program in North Dakota that would substantiate the claim that cloud seeding is reducing rainfall,” Langerud stated. “Nor do they show that in other programs where this activity is conducted.”

A program with much criticism

Chemically manipulating the weather certainly comes with its share of criticism and skepticism, according to Langerud, who as one of the top officials in the state dealing with the program is occasionally at the brunt of it.

One common opinion from producers that he has received is the claim that seeding clouds ahead of the producers makes them “rain out” so downwind there is no rain.

“Actually the evaluations show the opposite,” he said. “There’s actually a slight increase in rainfall that exists downwind of the area.”

There also have been no observations, said Langerud, of seeding creating larger storms after clouds pass over the seeded area. He went on to explain that while it reduces violent storm capability over the seeded area, its effects are also felt down the line since it takes some time for the seeding agent to be “purged” from the system.

When a person goes outside and observes a seeding plane flying near clouds, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being seeded, he explained. “The clouds have to be good candidates before they’re seeded” needing to possess an updraft, having warm, moist air moving up into the cloud to sustain it and produce rainfall and have zero to limited ice particles, depending upon the pilot’s goal to suppress hail or increase rain.

“Sometimes the perception from the ground is that the airplane flies to a location, circles underneath the cloud and then flies away, and then 10 minutes later that cloud dissipates, so that cloud was killed by the seeding,” he indicated. “No, in a lot of cases what happened was the airplane went to that location, the pilot determined that cloud wasn’t going to live much longer so they moved on to something else.”

One of the biggest misconceptions that lead to misunderstandings of the project, according to Langerud, is Bowman’s radar.

When viewing the online weather radar from the North Dakota State Water Commission and areas of yellow and red are seen above Bowman County, but nothing’s happening on the ground can be confusing.

Basically, the cause lies with the radar’s capability and not with weather modification, as some may suggest, he said.

The Bowman radar produces a composite image, which computes the highest reflectivity — the colors seen on the radar image that depict higher amounts of energies and thus more particles in the atmosphere, meaning more or larger precipitation — and compresses them onto one plain. The problem is, however, that the radar cannot see directly above itself nor at the base elevation, which is what radars from the National Weather Service provide.

Many times there can be high reflectivities above the county showing on the radar, but it could be that those reflectivites are four or five miles overhead and that precipitation, with the prevailing wind, may land down-wind a few miles because it takes a while for that raindrop to fall before it hits the ground.

“I think there is a little bit of confusion in interpreting the radar data because we’re showing a different version of the data,” he said. Bowman does not currently have coverage by the National Weather Service’s radar; the closet available is located in Hettinger.

But Langerud indicated that a conversation has been started to make a modification in the software to allow base elevation data available in the future.

Langerud said one of his goals is to inform the public of the capabilities and limitations of the program. He reiterated that it is “not a hail elimination project and it’s not a perfect project.”

Still, he said it is the right of the people to be able to vote if they want the project to continue or not.

“But when you look at the economics of that increase in rainfall and of the reduction of hail you’re talking about millions of dollars per year in additional gain for crops sold and economic activity, which far exceeds the cost of the program on an annual basis,” he said.

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