Cloud Seeding – Origins, Potential, and Risks
In the mid-20th century, American researchers began developing a weather modification program called “Project Skywater” (“Can”). The project’s aim was to harness atmospheric moisture through a new technique cloud-seeding (releasing silver iodide particles or other aerosols into clouds to increase precipitation) in order “to explore, develop and determine the feasibility of applying the technology of weather modification to meet the Nation’s increasing demand for clean water” (“Can”, KODAK). However, after a decade of testing, the project was essential shut down. Members of the public were concerned that if this technology was placed in the wrong hands, it would have global consequences – especially because, at that time, Cold War tensions were only increasing. Others were concerned about the unknown long-term environmental effects of the technology.
Today, small-scale experimentation is increasing again, and the debate regarding cloud seeding and other weather modification technologies continues throughout both the scientific community and the general public. Understandably, states whose economies rely heavily on agriculture tend to support the expansion in research: Since 2020, “Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and California have expanded cloud seeding operations” to try to compensate for the impacts of the “driest 22 years in more than a millennium” (KODAK). As the technique is relatively cheap and has proven to be at least somewhat effective, especially in China, where millions of dollars are spent annually on seeding clouds in the north and west, many government officials and researchers agree that it could be a very worthwhile short-term solution to drought. The Special Commission on Weather Modification, for instance, suggests that “Due to the great importance of the field…and because of the necessity of maintaining an interdisciplinary and international approach to weather activities, it is believed that continuing attention must be forthcoming from the Executive Office of the President” (“Why”).
However, most remain cautious: Researchers acknowledge that success in the lab does not guarantee success in nature, and “the practice increases precipitation by only around 10percent in a given area” – not nearly enough to combat a large-scale drought (KODAK). In addition, cloud seeding “can only boost existing storms, not generate entirely new ones. It also requires very specific wind, humidity, and cloud conditions to work” (“Messing”). Thus, scientists and policymakers worry that citizens might mistake cloud seeding as the final solution to all climate problems, and that the widespread implementation of cloud seeding might distract from more essential efforts to cut carbon emissions (“The U.S.”).
Others are simply uncomfortable with the idea of people being able to control the weather (Rogers). However, it is important to remember that the form of agriculture regarded thousands of years ago as the ultimate example of human influence over the rest of nature is today regarded fondly as a long-lost example of human unity with nature: The difference is that now, the form of nature we are trying to control is one that is not living, and we want to do it to give the living a better chance.
“Can Cloud Seeding Help Quench the Thirst of the U.S. West?” Yale E360, e360.yale.edu/features/can-cloud-seeding-help-quench-the-thirst-of-the-u.s.-west.
KODAK Capture software. NSF 66-3 WEATHER an CLIMATE MODIFICATION. 2012.
“Why a Landmark Experiment into Dimming the Sun Got Canceled.” Grist, 8 Apr. 2021, grist.org/science/who-gets-to-decide-if-we-study-solar-geoengineering-after-the-scopex-project-canceled/.
“The U.S. Drought Situation Is Getting Increasingly Desperate.” Gizmodo, 6 June 2022, gizmodo.com/the-u-s-drought-situation-is-getting-increasingly-desp-1849022991. Accessed 1 Oct. 2023.
“Messing with Nature? Geoengineering and Green Thought | Adam Corner.” The Guardian, 29 July 2013, www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/jul/29/messing-nature-geoengineering-green-thought.
Rogers, Jedediah S. “Project Skywater – Bureau of Reclamation.” Edited by Andrew H. Gahan, United States Bureau of Reclamation, July 2013, www.usbr.gov/history/ProjectHistories/Project_Skywater_D1%5b1%5d.pdf.