North Dakota cloud seeding planes get the green light

The North Dakota Cloud Modification Project (NDCMP) is an operational program that seeds clouds for hail damage reduction and rain enhancement in western North Dakota. Counties currently participating in the program are Bowman, Burke, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward, Williams, and part of Slope. Image courtesy state of North Dakota

As the summer weather rolls in, a very moody mother-nature sets the stage for natural weather modification in most states, be it drought, flooding, hail, etc., but in North Dakota, a program designed to increase rainfall and decrease hail damage has some residents questioning the science behind man-made weather modification.

Some Hettinger County residents have been trying to put an end to North Dakota Cloud Modification Project for several years. The program has pilots seeding clouds with silver iodide and dry ice to increase precipitation.

“Our goal is to end weather modification in North Dakota all together,” reported Jamie Kouba, a farmer in the county. “It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and it’s causing harm to the citizens.”

While Hettinger County does not seed clouds anymore, six counties in the state still do — Bowman, Burke, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward and Williams. The Ward County Commission voted last year to halt cloud seeding, but the state’s attorney Roza Larson said the Ward County Weather Modification Board has the authority to decide whether to go over the voters’ heads, so to speak.

“Our goal is to end weather modification in North Dakota all together. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and it’s causing harm to the citizens. … There is no way to know. You do not know what would have happened if (the cloud) wasn’t seeded.”Jamie Kouba, Hettinger County farmer

In February, a special meeting in Kenmare followed inquiries to townships, inquiring as to whether or not the towns wanted to be included in this year’s cloud seeding program. While the method of roll call and letter sending was questioned, and even considered illegal by some board members, the board went on to approve cloud seeding operations for 2018.

The North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board, on April 23, sent out a letter, on the weather modification plans, excluding some areas, based on public comment.

“In consideration of public comment, the “buffer zone,” 10 miles in width and external to the target area to the north (Slope County) and east (Hettinger and Adams Counties) was excluded from the operations area,” Darin Langerud, ARB Director said, referring to District 1. “Woodberry township in Slope County, which is surrounded by the Slope townships participating in the program, was included in the operations area.”

In District 2 area, Langerud said that the board approved the permit, which includes a five-county target area.

“Public comments primarily focused on project funding and benefits,” Langerud said. “Participation in the project is a local decision, thus funding is a local decision. State cost-share funding comes only after the local funding commitment.”

The program continues to spark heated debate. Some area farmers argue that the practice actually directs rainfall away from fields and worsens drought conditions. The program ended early last year, with many hoping it would not start again.

“We are asking to join the other 47 counties in the state who do not try to modify their weather,” Roger Neshem, who serves by appointment on the county’s weather modification authority, said.

Neshem said there is simply not enough proof that it works, and financially, it is a burden.

“My wettest years are the years they aren’t working,” Neshem said.

Cloud seeding, or weather modification, is believed to change the amount or type of precipitation that falls from clouds, by dispersing chemicals into the air that serve as cloud condensation or ice nuclei, which alter the microphysical processes within the cloud.

Opponents argue that seeding actually diverts rainfall away from drought-stricken pastures and says that the program has done nothing for crop insurance rates relating to hail damage. According to Neshem, Ward County rates are actually higher than most by as much as 20 to 30 percent, which he says leads to the argument that hail reduction has not been successful, or they would be lower.

“The number one study out there is hail insurance premiums. It hails here more than anywhere, still,” he said.

John Palczewski, a farmer and rancher from Scranton, North Dakota, in southeast Bowman County is just down-wind from where the seeding starts. Palczewski says that the planes, mostly piloted by interns, are used to control the weather, and that is a violation of his private property rights.

“I can visually watch it from my house,” he said. “You can watch the clouds build. You can see the planes and watch them seeding. Then they’ll just disappear.”

The science, pro or con, is hard to find, and some argue that until there is scientific proof that weather modification is working, it shouldn’t happen.

“The burden shouldn’t be on me to prove that I’m right; the burden should be on them to prove that [the program] is working,” Neshem concluded.

Finding the science to prove either side the difficult part.

According to the Atmospheric Resource Board’s website, and a 2008 study, cloud seeding suppresses hail, citing research of a reduction in crop-hail damage by 45 percent. Independent research studies also claim an increase in rainfall from 4 to 14 percent, with cloud seeding.

The 2008 study, conducted by Dean Bangsund and Dr. F. Larry Leistritz, of the NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, shows the North Dakota Cloud Modification Project (NDCMP) is strongly economic, even when considered on its most conservative results.

Rainfall enhancement benefits for the program were evaluated at two intervals (5 and 10 percent), which reflect the long-term evaluations of the NDCMP. In the 5 percent scenario, the value of increased crop production is estimated to yield $8.4 million annually, which equates to $3.58 per planted acre. In the 10 percent scenario, the value of increased production is estimated to yield $16 million annually, or $6.84 per planted acre.

The analysis of hail suppression activities shows the average crop value saved through cloud seeding is $3.7 million per year, which equates to $1.57 per planted acre. Including hail suppression benefits, the total direct impact in the 5 percent rainfall scenario is $12 million annually, while the total direct impact in the 10 percent scenario is $19.7 million. That translates to $5.16 and $8.41 per planted acre, respectively. These results yield a benefit-to-cost ratio, based on anticipated 2009 project costs, of 16 to 1 for the 5 percent scenario, and 26 to 1 under the 10 percent scenario.

In 1980, a federally-funded research program, known as the Federal-State Cooperative Program in Atmospheric Modification Research, was funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency within the Department of Commerce, to look at weather modification.

Roughly half a million federal dollars per year were pooled with the available state resources to collect and analyze thunderstorm data. Major field efforts were mounted every three to four years, while analysis efforts filled the years between field efforts. A great number of technical papers from this research program were included in national scientific publications. The program was cut from the budget in 1994, but renewed efforts are underway to involve the federal government in cloud seeding research according to the North Dakota state website.

As it remains today, weather modification skeptics maintain the studies aren’t completely relevant. Running control experiments in cloud-seeding studies is a challenge, and statistically there is really no proof. With over 70 years of testing, the answers are still hard to come by.

“There is no way to know. You do not know what would have happened if [the cloud] wasn’t seeded,” Neshem points out.

Early studies of the process died off after the 1980s, but new technology and new work in the sciences has researchers looking for new science-based answers.

A more recent cloud-seeding project in southwestern Idaho, aimed at increasing snowfall, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), looked at increasing snow pack, which doesn’t help with much with the North Dakota argument.

But until the science is there, Kouba and some other residents in North Dakota, would like a time out on the cloud seeding.

“Operating without real and tangible studies of the effects of this program beyond the target area is irresponsible and negligent,” Kouba wrote.