In the skies near the border of Texas and New Mexico, a small white airplane speeds toward a promising cloud. A young pilot handles the controls. He must work quickly.
The plane’s wings each carry a row of 24 flares. They look like shotgun shells. (In fact, the company that sells the casings also makes police ammo.) Each flare costs $35 to manufacture, but carries invaluable potential.
The flares are packed with silver iodide, a chemical that looks like a yellowish powder. Under the microscope, it looks like an ice crystal. The resemblance is significant.
The flares alight, and a trail of smoke follows the plane through the cloud. Minutes pass, and the pilot watches the cloud swell. Miles away on the ground, a meteorologist monitors the situation on a TITAN radar screen, the kind used by television weathermen.
A chemical masquerade plays out inside the cloud. Tiny droplets of water bind to the silver iodide as though it really were ice. The drops fatten. Rain falls.
But, to the frustration of farmers on the wrong side of the border, it does not fall so much over New Mexico.
This is a scene that has played out scores of times over the past decade, according to Gary Walker, the stocky, gray-haired Texan who owns the airplane and its rainmaking payload. His business is cloud seeding.
“Last year, I had to wait till the clouds got to the Texas border,” Walker says. “We could’ve generated rainfall in New Mexico, but we can’t go over there for free. It just can’t be done.”
That’s right: Even rain costs money these days.
The state of New Mexico paid for cloud seeding beginning in the 1990s, but the money dried up after 2005, and subsequent funding bills failed to take root. Now the New Mexico Legislature is considering a bill to pay for cloud seeding in the southeastern corner of the state. The work would fall to Walker’s organization, SOAR, short for Seeding Operations and Atmospheric Research.
Today’s cloud seeders say the methods have advanced since the ’70s heyday of the technique. Its most enthusiastic proponents say cloud seeding is more than a boon to high-desert farmers—it is a way to save civilization from its own excesses.
As the world enters a water crisis—driven by the collective thirst of 6 billion and exacerbated by the frightening consequences of global warming—the cloud seeders, a quirky group of weathermen and flyboys, say they can actually do what the Pueblo people can only pray for: They can bring rain.
But for all the interest groups who love it—farmers, ski resort operators, Chinese technocrats—cloud seeding remains controversial. In the movies, only mad scientists mess with the weather. And only suckers believe the stranger from out of town who promises to end a drought for a reasonable fee.
Add to that the inherent guesswork: Scientists don’t fully understood how cloud seeding works. Nor is the legal system prepared to handle the possible consequences of widespread weather modification. But that No. 1 argument, about messing with Mother Nature, may be the most compelling.
“Beware of exceeding what nature provides,” Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif. and one of the world’s top water authorities, says. “It has unintended consequences.”
Walker doesn’t buy it. “We drill wells—that’s messing with Mother Nature. There weren’t any here when Columbus landed,” he says. “Our farmers use chemicals. Our ranchers cut their bull calves. We all drive a vehicle. We modify the weather inadvertently with man’s activities.”
And yet, the weather remains an endless subject of small talk precisely because it is so mysterious and unpredictable. If scientists can master it, as they mastered the atom and the genome, it will mark another advancement in humanity’s pitiless march over nature. Of course, some would say that attitude is precisely what created this mess—resource wars, climate change, landfills poisoned by the batteries from iPhones—in the first place.
On a cool February morning, without a cloud in the sky and with the economy in the dirt, lawmakers and lobbyists file into the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Inside a crowded and somewhat dingy room, Gary Walker makes his pitch.
The Agriculture & Water Resources Committee of the New Mexico House of Representatives isn’t the most glamorous group of people ever to gather around a conference table—but Walker has seen worse. “I’ll tell ya, y’all got a lot of better looking legislators than in Texas,” he says.
A former Texas lawmaker, Walker knows when to turn on the charm and when to get to the point. “I know your money’s short,” he says, “but the viability of rural New Mexico depends on your water supply.” And, for the bargain price of $250,000, he promises to increase that supply by thousands and thousands of gallons.
It takes some explaining. He knows his way of rainmaking sounds a bit like sprinkling the clouds with fairy dust. “It’s not voodoo science like it used to be in the ’50s,” Walker says.
In the back of the room, State Engineer John D’Antonio says
he approves of the rainmaking project. Hoyt Pattison, a dairy producer and industry lobbyist from Clovis, also stands. He is dressed like a cowboy. “This works. And we need this in New Mexico,” Pattison says.
Rep. Ray Begaye, D-San Juan, voices some mild skepticism about the state’s past investment in rainmaking. After a short, not-too-technical discussion, the committee unanimously recommends the state fund cloud seeding in Roosevelt and Lea counties. (At this writing, the bill had yet to come to the floor.)
Walker files into the bustling hallway with Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Chavez, who sponsored the weather modification bill. Gardner’s district is suffering a drought. “I don’t even remember what rain looks like,” he told the committee.
Cloud seeding, Gardner hopes, could be the answer. “When I first heard about it, I thought it was some sort of a dance,” Gardner says. Now he is a believer.
Faith often springs from desperation. And as the world’s streams and aquifers dry out, diverted toward growing cities, cloud seeding believers grow in number.
The Chinese government employs the world’s most enthusiastic seeders. They shot silver iodide rockets into the skies through last year’s Olympics in an attempt to control weather patterns during the opening ceremony. In late February, China’s weather modification office took credit for a big snow in Beijing. “Hundreds have played truant from offices to sneak a peak of the first snowfall of the winter,” the Times of London reported. However, it was “still nowhere near enough to alleviate the drought that is threatening wheat harvests in several northern provinces.”
Cloud seeding is underway in Israel, Greece, Australia, Thailand—the list goes on. Here in the US, it’s going on in Texas, Colorado, California and beyond. A five-year, $8 million state-funded cloud-seeding experiment in Wyoming recently entered its fourth year. Michael Purcell, director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission, says the experiment will be considered successful if it increases precipitation by 15 percent.
“We can’t, at this point in time, tell you whether it’s doing any good or not,” Purcell says. “I’m sure the smart people have some inkling. They’re sworn to secrecy until the whole thing’s done.”
These efforts have gained a sense of urgency, not just because of global warming.
Over the past few years, “peak oil” has caught on as a catchphrase for oil depletion that’s roughly synonymous with Armageddon. Now Gleick of the Pacific Institute is sounding an alarm over “peak water.” He is among those who believe water could be to this century what petroleum was to the last.
“Water is different than oil in that it’s a renewable resource,” he says. Unfortunately, “we use it faster than nature recharges it.”
Signs of shortage abound. News services carry reports of droughts from the Middle East to China to California. This month, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power—the largest city utility in the US—may vote to charge consumers extra if they exceed a monthly water allowance. “Of all places—Hollywood and glitz and money—they’re going to start rationing water because they don’t have enough,” Gabriel Eckstein, director of the International Water Law Project, says.
Santa Fe and Albuquerque already charge their biggest water users more, to discourage overconsumption. In the near future, that may not be enough.
Eight percent of the water New Mexicans use each year goes toward the public water supply, which includes the sprinklers on golf courses and the tap water in homes. Much more—over three-quarters of all the water consumed in the state—diverts to irrigated cropland, according to the Office of the State Engineer.
Just those two categories constitute more than 1.1 trillion gallons a year, enough to drown the state 23 feet deep.
Fast-forward to 2040. The population doubles, if today’s official projections are correct. Unless New Mexicans get a lot more efficient or a lot less thirsty, they’ll need another trillion gallons, give or take.
Where will all that water come from?
This is the question that preoccupies Sigmund Silber, a hunched but lively man with a white moustache and a way of talking almost entirely with numbers. He hails from back east, but has adopted the bolo tie.
Silber, whose background is in mathematics and planning, moved to New Mexico five or six years ago after working for a company that owned a copper mine in Silver City. Today, he and his girlfriend, a biologist, live on a small ranch off Route 14 toward Cerrillos, with an orchard, a garden, chickens and soon, they hope, some sheep. Thirsty creatures all.
“When I moved to New Mexico, it was pretty clear to me that we had a water problem,” Silber says.
Cloud seeding came to his attention when he began to head up the technical committee of a regional water-planning council. The reports he read—“paper after paper after paper after paper”—impressed him. But it was difficult to find support for weather modification projects within the state bureaucracy.
So in 2004, Silber formed the New Mexico Weather Modification Association, a nonprofit organization for which he now serves as president. As such, he is the chief advocate for cloud seeding in New Mexico. His goals are ambitious, to say the least.
“I’m interested in saving agriculture,” Silber says. “There are people who say, ‘Why do you want to grow things in the desert?’ I think that’s a mistake.”
The calculation is simple. Droughts kill crops. Farmers lose money. Food costs more.
“In New Mexico, we don’t have many sources of income,” he says. “Oil and gas is declining. Tourism is a big part of the economy, and it requires the state to be somewhat green. If you kill agriculture, you’re going to kill our traditional communities. That’s not good for tourism. You’re going to have people driven off the land and into cities. That’s not good.”
Which is why cloud seeders cast their mission in almost heroic terms. They see their way of bringing rain as part of a larger effort to keep civilization from passing into dust.
In his novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut imagined a substance called ice-nine, which turns warm liquid water into a solid. Of course, ice-nine eventually freezes all the world’s oceans. Vonnegut got the idea from his brother, Bernard, who pioneered silver iodide cloud seeding in 1946 as a scientist for General Electric.
Bernard Vonnegut managed some of those early cloud-seeding experiments here in the desert, with researchers from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
In 1961, the federal government began a multi-state weather modification effort called Project Skywater. Conrad Keyes, who retired from running the civil engineering department at New Mexico State University two decades ago, led some key experiments with the project, from 1968 to 1972.
Keyes’ team made its home base in Cuba, NM, approximately 110 miles northwest of Santa Fe, where they targeted the clouds over the Jemez Mountains.
“We tried to use some aircraft, but we couldn’t get clearances during the winter storms,” Keyes recalls. Instead, they seeded the clouds with ground-based generators burning silver iodide.
Then Nixon took office and killed their funding.
Cloud seeders all over the country still rely on Keyes’ data. His work did not, however, persuade state lawmakers to keep paying the rainmakers.
The lack of data offers all the more reason to keep seeding, Keyes says. “In my opinion, from looking at this for over 30 years, we need year-round operations all over the state, where we can move from one place to another and only do it in areas where it will be effective,” Keyes says.
He wants the state to fund a roving fleet of radar trucks, as well as planes stationed at multiple airports that are ready to take flight and make rain when conditions permit. This winter’s storms in northern New Mexico would have been ideal.
New Mexico Weather Modification Association President Silber dreams just as big. He imagines a winter cloud-seeding project in the Jemez, with dozens of generators like the kind Keyes used decades ago.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity to increase snowpack,” Silber says.
More snowpack means more river water. Silber thinks one mountain seeding project could add another three-hundredths of an inch of water in that 23-foot deep, New Mexico-sized pool. That may not sound like much, but it’s one-sixteenth of the state’s public water supply and several times what the city of Santa Fe consumes in a year.
If it worked, it would be more cost-effective than draining a shrinking aquifer. The depletion of those underground water sources could prove as disastrous as Vonnegut’s vision of frozen oceans.
In the world of 2025, as imagined by the Air Force in 1996, the US military faces a heavily armed South American drug cartel. The attack begins with unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Predator drones that now patrol the border with Mexico and launch missiles into Afghanistan and Pakistan—except these drones would seed the clouds, creating a “cirrus shield” to interfere with enemy surveillance and foil their defenses with intense thunderstorms.
“A high-risk, high-reward endeavor, weather-modification offers a dilemma not unlike the splitting of the atom,” the authors of this speculative Air Force report wrote. “[T]he tremendous military capabilities that could result from this field are ignored at our own peril.”
Not surprisingly, government visions of worldwide weather control have fueled many conspiracy theorists, especially those who believe in “chemtrails,” a corruption of contrails, the long white mini-clouds that follow jet aircraft through the sky.
“The chemtrail people think every contrail of every jet plane is a chemical that’s designed to do something to make people sick or modify the climate or something,” David Thomas, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, says.
Few have done more to advance this “coast-to-coast fringe conspiracy,” as Thomas calls it, than Clifford Carnicom, a computer technician in Santa Fe. On his Web site, Carnicom postulates the government is poisoning us all from the air. Or something.
“That’s such a bunch of crap,” Walker says. “Why would they be doing it in clear air when you can see ’em? We invite people to come out to the radar and watch us operate,” he says, “and all they do is sit around the coffee shop and gripe.”
Conspiracies aside, cloud seeders actually are spreading chemicals. The national Weather Modification Association claims seeding is perfectly safe, that the silver found in rainwater from a seeded storm is well within safe levels, that table salt contains more iodine than seeded rainwater.
Silver iodide is more harmful to fish and worms and germs than it is to people and livestock. Still, it doesn’t sound too appetizing. “I wouldn’t drink a glass of it,” Silber says.
In 1977, the US Department of Agriculture got around to studying the possible effects on health from cloud seeding. Researchers bought 20 yearling ewes and dosed them with varying levels of silver iodide. Two sheep died after gel capsules containing the chemical broke in their mouths. But in the end, none of the sheep developed signs of disease from poisoning.
The USDA concluded the chemicals “used in weather modification operations are not likely to induce overt toxic effects in livestock.” However, “continuous cloud seeding operations…may contaminate range forages and grain or hay crops” and increase the overall amount of silver iodide present in the food chain.
Given all the unknowns—from chemical accumulations to unforeseen side-effects—shouldn’t the seeders worry about liabilities?
Silber smiles. “Since you can’t prove it works, you can’t prove it’ll hurt you,” he says.
The safety of cloud seeding remains a hypothetical concern. Questions as to its efficacy are much more immediate.
“They can tell how much precipitation they’re producing. What they can’t tell is how much makes it to the ground,” Silber says.
Walker says analyses of his programs show anywhere between a 10 to 22 percent increase in precipitation from seeded clouds versus non-seeded clouds.
“That doesn’t mean you get 22 percent more water on the ground over the whole state of New Mexico,” Walker says. “We can’t seed the clear blue sky. But when there are clouds…you’re going to get more water out of them.”
There’s a problem with any attempt to measure the effects of cloud seeding. Advanced radar can identify clouds that are similar. But clouds are like the snowflakes they’re made of—no two are alike. The sky is not a laboratory. Experiments cannot be repeated.
“There’s no control system,” Gleick, the water policy expert, says. “They’re sort of waving their arms.”
The National Academy of Sciences completed a comprehensive review of weather modification research in 2003. University of Virginia professor Michael Garstang, who led the review, later told a US Senate subcommittee “there still is no convincing scientific proof” that cloud seeding works—but that it might work sometimes.
Garstang concluded that, whatever uncertainties remain, “weather modification should be viewed as a fundamental and legitimate element of atmospheric and environmental science.” In part, he reasoned that people like Walker would keep seeding, proof or no proof.
This is where Walker’s philosophical side shows. “Clouds are living animals: They all die,” he says. “People say, ‘I saw you fly into that cloud and it went away.’ There’s no cloud out there today that was there four days ago. Clouds live and clouds die. People live and people die.”
Walker became a rancher after flying in the Navy. He left the Texas House of Representatives in 2001 and formed SOAR. He doesn’t fly the seeders much anymore. “I don’t need the hours,” Walker says. “I’ve seen the world from 25,000 feet.”
Rainmaking could be the biggest job he has ever had. “I miss being in the Legislature, but how much more important could it be to provide water in the ground in our part of the state?” Walker says. “Without our irrigated farmers, my part of Texas pretty much dries up. We still have a courthouse, but we don’t have near as many workers…so people move away and our school gets smaller. Pretty soon your schools are so small your kids have go to Denver City.”
But, like most arguments, this one comes back around to money.
Pumping water drains the bank accounts of farmers in Walker’s seeding area. “We have 90,000 acres of irrigated land in Yoakum County. If you put a pencil to that, it’s $18 million that’s spent just in pumping costs. If I’m only effective in reducing their pumping by 5 percent, that’s $900,000,” Walker says. “Your banker will buy that all day long.”
The farmer downwind might not be so happy. It is foreseeable he might conclude Walker made those inbound clouds drop their loads prematurely.
“A lot of cloud seeding, if you assume it’s working, is taking water from somewhere else. Who is speaking for the downstream user?” Gleick says.
Advocates insist cloud seeding doesn’t rob Peter to pay Paul. “You’re not really reducing the amount of rainfall; you’re just changing the pattern a little bit,” Silber says. “We don’t actually destroy water. We just kind of borrow it.”
That may be true, but people and their crops aren’t the only things that need water. “Maybe the systems that are being hurt are ecosystems that don’t have a voice,” Gleick says.
Indeed, the long-term consequences of cloud seeding simply cannot be predicted and could have the same scale of impact as carbon fuels have had on the climate.
And then there’s the lawyers: Nobody knows who owns the clouds.
New Mexico’s 1965 weather modification law, partly authored by Conrad Keyes, claims for the state “all moisture on the atmosphere which would fall.” That law remains untested.
Eckstein, of the International Water Law Project, knows of no cases where someone has sued over stolen rain—but he thinks they’re coming. In Colorado last year, a woman wanted to collect the rain falling from her roof in barrels. The state denied her a permit, under the dubious theory that the water would otherwise flow into a stream to which someone else has rights.
“People are duking it out over water: nothing new. But it’s going to get worse,” Eckstein says. “I don’t think it’s so far-fetched that they’ll start duking it out over water in the atmosphere.”
Eckstein frets over the morality of water use as much as the legality. He says society lacks a “water ethic—making decisions not based on property rights or economics, but in terms of right and wrong, good and bad.” Society regulates the quality of water—which is why you can’t dump toxic sludge into rivers—but when it comes to quantity, money rules.
Cloud seeding dodges the ethical question: Instead of trying to wring more rain from a passing cloud, shouldn’t people make do with what they have?
“Cloud seeding ain’t the silver bullet. It ain’t gonna—ain’t? Isn’t. It isn’t going to fix our water problems,” Walker says, fixing his Texas grammar. “It’s one piece of the puzzle. We’ve got to conserve all we can.”
It’s a little perverse to talk about conservation in a drought.
Mike Cone farms more than 2,000 acres—wheat and corn, mostly—in Quay and Roosevelt counties. He remembers when the state of New Mexico started funding cloud seeding there, back in the ’90s. Cone didn’t know about the technique until he went to a workshop.
“They made it sound like they were going to make it rain out of the blue sky. People said…that’s a bunch of hogwash,” Cone says.
Then Gary Walker’s airplanes came, chasing clouds that brought rain.
“It worked,” Cone says. “It did some good things.”
He hopes to see those planes again soon, trailing silver smoke behind them. SFR