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Cloud seeding

A Piper Seneca II airplane seeds a cloud base with silver iodide in Bowman County during the summer of 2013. Photo provided by the State Water Commission

A common plot in B movies involves central characters messing with Mother Nature with dire consequences. Good intentions invariably lead to disaster.

Some North Dakotans believe that’s true of the weather modification program. They argue the program redirects the rain to other areas resulting in less rain for them.

Six North Dakota counties - Bowman, Burke, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward, Williams - as well as a portion of a Slope County, take part in the North Dakota Cloud Modification Project, which aims to reduce hail and enhance rainfall. Counties decide whether to participate in the program. The program started in the 1950s and at its peak 36 of the state’s 53 counties were involved in some form of cloud seeding. Many of those programs were short-lived.

Bowman County residents voted on the issue last year with 70 percent of voters supporting cloud seeding. Williams County endorsed the program in 2000 after a four-year trial period with 80 percent of voters approving.

On the other side, some residents of Hettinger County are spearheading an effort to end weather modification in the state. The county dropped the program in 1988. After listening to complaints, the Ward County Commission voted to suspend cloud seeding. However, it appears the Ward County Weather Modification Board has the power to decide whether to follow the commission decision.

Even Gov. Doug Burgum has gotten involved. He asked State Engineer Garland Erbele to do research on weather modification and report to the Aug. 23 State Water Commission meeting.

The attention the weather mod program is receiving shouldn’t come as a surprise. There always have been those opposed to efforts to change the weather. They fear the unintended consequences, such as rain being redirected from one area to another. In a story last Sunday, reporter Amy Dalrymple talked with Jon Wert of New England, a former supporter of weather mod. He’s now convinced after doing his own research that Hettinger County receives less rain because of weather mod.

Darin Langerud, director of the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board, told Dalrymple, "We're not making it rain, we're working around the margins of clouds to help increase rainfall a little bit." He also cites studies showing the program has suppressed hail by 45 percent and increased rainfall by 5 percent to 10 percent. The North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board, a division of the State Water Commission, manages the weather mod program.

Who’s right? The Tribune editorial board believes the program benefits the counties it serves. We don’t think it’s stealing rain from other areas, but working to increase rainfall that otherwise wouldn’t occur. It will be interesting to hear Erbele’s report to the Water Commission. However, it’s doubtful the report will change many, if any, minds. Opinions about the weather are based on a variety of factors ranging from scientific data to family folklore.

This year’s drought highlights the issues surrounding the program. Any rain becomes extremely valuable, so if you think you are losing it to weather mod or gaining rain, it shapes your opinion of the program. Langerud pointed out at a Mott town hall meeting Monday night that the program isn’t a drought-buster.

Burgum told the town hall meeting audience that he wants to establish a means for weather seeding planes to transmit data on the impact of their actions in real time, using social media.

“You guys are right to ask about the data,” Burgum told the audience. “The data for the taxpayer studies is yours. It isn’t the state’s, it belongs to all of us. The raw data, not just the studies. It doesn’t matter if it’s tax information or policy information, that data belongs to the people.”

 New data could be helpful in deciding on the future of cloud seeding. The Water Commission meeting will be a good place to continue the discussion.