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Radar truck

The monitoring radar truck for the SNOWIE Project. Photo: National Center for Atmospheric Research

The Inertia

Geoengineering is a frightening thing. In short, it’s human intervention into the weather. It has enormous consequences, though, and those consequences could be exponentially bad. If things go right, however, geoengineering could solve a lot of seemingly unsolvable problems. From drought to climate change, geoengineering could hold the keys to the future of the world. But those keys might very well unlock a door we shouldn’t open. Demand for water is steadily increasing in arid regions, and for half a century, a process called cloud seeding has been on the minds of researchers trying to solve the problem. And in January of 2019, a team of researchers made it snow in western Idaho.

Cloud seeding involves shooting particles of silver iodide into clouds. The particles create surface area for the water molecules in the cloud to grab onto and turn into ice crystals. The whole thing is extremely controversial since it’s difficult to predict what will happen — and if something does happen, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much of it the cloud seeding is responsible for.

Cloud seeding is definitely not a new concept to Idahoans. Scientists with Idaho Power, the state’s largest energy manufacturer, have used cloud seeding to boost valuable mountain snowpacks for at least a decade, which of course turns into water (and sellable energy).

On the day of the January study in western Idaho, weather forecasts did not predict snow. After those silver iodide particles were fired into the clouds, a team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder watched as a dusting of snow fell gently down around them. The experiment was fittingly called SNOWIE (Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds: The Idaho Experiment), which is just more proof that most scientists are acronym nerds.

“Cloud seeding to increase winter snowpack in mountains has traditionally been evaluated using precipitation gauges and target/control statistics leading mostly to inconclusive results,” the researchers wrote in a paper recently published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences. “Here, an approach employing radar and gauges is used to quantify snowfall by first isolating radar returns that are unambiguously the result of cloud seeding in regions with light or no natural precipitation and then quantifying the seeding-induced precipitation at the ground. The spatiotemporal evolution of snowfall from cloud seeding is quantified. Although this study focuses only on three cases, the results are a fundamental step toward understanding cloud seeding efficacy that, for over half a century, has been an unanswered question for water managers wishing to utilize the technology for water resource management.”

Katja Friedrich, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, told IFLScience‘s Kristy Hamilton that this is the first time anyone has been able to “show the entire chain of events during three cases from the time we put the seeding material into the cloud, as it converts supercooled liquid into snow, and how the snow falls onto the ground.”

The snow that fell was spread out over nearly 1,000 square miles. It wasn’t a huge dump of snow by any means — just one-tenth of a millimeter deep — but, according to IFLScience, it produced enough water to fill 280 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

It’s an indicator of what could be in our future, and if nothing else, at least those pow days might be just a little bit deeper.


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