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Silver Lining

Cloud seeders push New Mexico to solve its water woes by making rain  

March 3, 2009, 12:00 am

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.

Sometimes. Maybe.

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.

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