History of Weather Modification in Texas
In the 1950s, Texas was ravaged by one of the Lone Star State’s worst recorded droughts. The water shortage became so dire that many farmers left agriculture for other jobs, while ranchers sold their livestock. For perspective, the state saw up to 50 percent less rainfall than it typically would during a handful of years in that decade.
As the situation worsened, researchers sought ways to produce enough rain to save crops, jobs and lives. By the 60s, the drought had ended, but the thirst for the ability to prevent another of equal severity had not. In 1967, the Texas Legislature adopted a law that governed weather modification technology – a decision that was followed by state and federal funds for weather modification research.
Today, six weather modification projects span 28.2 million acres, or one-sixth of Texas’ land area, according to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. And, while that geographical area may seem significant, it is only about half of the land on which weather modification activities were occurring in the early 2000s when a state grant program still existed. The grant program vanished in 2004 -- a year after weather modification peaked in Texas.
In 2017, weather modification activities in Texas have three key goals: rain enhancement to benefit agriculture, rain enhancement for the sake of replenishing aquifers, and hail suppression to decrease the harm a storm could cause in a populated area.
What is Cloud Seeding?
Cloud seeding is the primary mechanism for weather modification in Texas. Those involved in cloud seeding say they cannot control the weather, but they hope their efforts can give Mother Nature a push by enhancing rainfall.
In order to produce rain, the water vapor in clouds needs particles around which it can gather to become liquid raindrops. But, sometimes, storms are inefficient and lack enough particles to produce very much rain. That is where cloud seeding comes into play.
State-approved meteorologists seek out what they believe to be inefficient thunderstorms based on radar. They then dispatch specially trained pilots, who use small aircraft equipped with flares to release extra particles – in the form of silver iodide or other salt mixtures—into the updraft of a thunderstorm. Ideally, those extra particles get sucked into the storm, increasing the amount of rainfall or prolonging the life of the storm by giving water vapor more particles to latch onto – thus, producing rain.
“Seeded storms – on average – deliver nearly 2.3 times the rain water as an unseeded storm,” said George Bomar, the Austin-based meteorologist who oversees weather modification in Texas.
Bomar works at the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which licenses the state’s six weather modification programs and makes sure they comply with state regulations governing cloud seeding.
There is no precise way to guage the effectiveness of cloud seeding because every storm is different. But, cloud seeders experiment by seeding some storms and not others to get as a close to a “control” group as possible for their data. Bomar said the research suggests cloud seeding can have noticeable positive effects on rainfall amounts.
To read more about specifically where cloud seeding is happening in Texas, click here.
Is Cloud Seeding Safe?
The state claims it has never had a mid-air incident involving cloud seeding operations, even thought there is risk associated with flying small aircrafts along the edge of a storm.
“We do everything we can to minimize the risk to the airplane and the pilot while the cloud seeding is going on,” said Fil Filburn, a weather modification pilot, who is based in San Angelo.
Filburn is part of the West Texas Weather Modification Association, which focuses its attention on more than six million acres of land between Midland and San Angelo. The site has four small planes, which are used for cloud seeding. Filburn said the key to safety is knowing what to do if something goes wrong and a pilot is sucked into a storm. He said pilots should always know which way to guide the aircraft to return to clear air.
“Whenever the pilot starts to feel uncomfortable, it’s their choice to go ahead and pull off the thunderstorm,” said Jonathan Jennings, the meteorologist who oversees the West Texas Weather Modification Project.
Local groundwater conservation districts – along with the City of San Angelo—fund the West Texas project. Jennings stays in close contact with farmers, who keep him aware of their water needs. While Jennings and others would like the state grant to return and alleviate the burden on local taxpayers, his operation has survived several years without state assistance.
On the environmental side, the state said testing showed only trace amounts of silver iodide in groundwater in areas where cloud seeding occurred. And, the silver iodide that was there was well below the federal threshold, according to Bomar. Jennings said the low amounts of particles in groundwater was because the seeding agents become so spread out and diluted in the clouds, that they do not present a major risk to the environment.
“We’ve been doing this for over 20 years in San Angelo. If there was an environmental impact, we would see it,” Jennings said.
PHOTOS: West Texas cloud seeding operation in San Angelo
VERIFY: Can we control the weather?
The answer is no. But, meteorologists, regulators and pilots involved in cloud seeding believe they can slightly increase the duration of storms or enhance rainfall when their flights are successful. And, they believe seeding has a positive impact on aquifers and agriculture.
Cloud seeders often get questions about chemtrail conspiracy theories. While those we spoke with did not pretend to know whether or not any of those conspiracies had merit, they said the height at which the planes in those conspiracies are rumored to fly is well above where cloud seeding is done – which is only a few thousand feet in the air, where storms are forming. In other words, cloud seeding and chemtrails are not the same thing.
1. George Bomar - State Meteorologist, Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation
2. Jonathan Jennings - Project Coordinator and Meteorologist, West Texas Weather Modification Association
3. Fil Filburn - Pilot, West Texas Weather Modification Association
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