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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Silver Lining

Silver Lining

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

March 3, 2009, 12:00 am


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.

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