Turns out Forum letter-to-the-editor writer Clint Lindemann of Enderlin, N.D., is not the only one who believes North Dakota’s long practice of “seeding clouds” in some western counties has contributed to a nasty drought.
The Ward County Commission voted Tuesday to ask the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board to cease operations in that north-central county. Ward County is the county in which Minot is located. This information was passed on to me by a reader/listener and confirmed by Minot Daily News reporter Jill Schramm, who covered the meeting.
Cloud modification has been around since the 1940s, when it was accidentally discovered by scientists at General Electric in New York. The idea is for planes to spray silver iodide into storm clouds with two goals in mind: reduce hail and augment rainfall.
A quick science lesson, from physics.org.
Rainfall occurs when super-cooled droplets of water – those that are still liquid but are at a temperature below the usual freezing point of zero centigrade – form ice crystals. Now too heavy to remain suspended in the air, these then fall, often melting on their way down to form rain.
Even in dry areas the air usually contains some water. This can be made to come together and form ice crystals by seeding the atmosphere with chemicals such as silver iodide or dry ice.
They work to promote rainfall by inducing nucleation – what little water is in the air condenses around the newly introduced particles and crystallises to form ice.
It’s a “kick-start” to the process that “hopefully makes more efficient use of those clouds,” said Darin Langerud, director of the Atmospheric Resource Board.
Lindemann wrote a letter to The Forum that was shared online more than 2,500 times. In it, he accused the state’s Cloud Modification Project, under the auspices of the North Dakota Water Commission, of causing western North Dakota’s lack of precipitation.
“You can watch the storms growing into something significant in eastern Montana and diminish into just about nothing when it hits the border of North Dakota. Then when they get further to the east the storms gain strength again. Leaving these counties with less than the anticipated precipitation,” Lindemann wrote.
“Drought in western North Dakota has been extreme for years and it continues to be. Getting rid of weather modification would greatly help the need for precipitation for farmers and ranchers. Drought comes because of many factors but one factor shouldn’t be the human element, especially if we can stop it,” he continued.
The letter became a topic on my 970 WDAY radio show Monday because, frankly, I believed Lindemann’s letter to be off-the-wall. But it turned out the controversy is real and has been ongoing for decades — basically ever since weather modification became a thing in the 1950s. Early efforts at hail reduction and rain enhancement were initially locally funded, but the state began providing money in the mid-1970s.
Early on, 17 counties participated in the cloud modification project. Today, the program has shrunk to seven counties in the western or southwestern part of the state — Bowman, Burke, McKenzie, Mountrail, Williams, part of Slope and Ward.
Berthold-area farmer Roger Neshem has long been a critic of cloud-seeding, saying that it has not helped reduce hail damage in Ward County while limiting precipitation. Neshem is a county-level member of the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board and he has pushed Ward County to drop cloud-seeding for years, including at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I’ve watched this for 30 years,” Neshem said after calling my radio program Monday. “Our hail insurance rates per $100 of hail coverage in Ward County is 20 to 30 percent higher than those that do not have the program. Last year we had three hail storms. All three were seeded. They took big hail and turned it into small hail. It makes it worse on crops.
“If you look at 30-year climate data, Ward County has the lowest precip rates than all the counties around it. How do you explain that? There’s nowhere in the state where you move from west to east and rainfall decreases. … Our hail rates in Ward County are higher than all the places that don’t do it.”
We also called Langerud and he joined the program, disputing Lindemann’s letter and the general idea that cloud-seeding has deepened the drought.
“There is no truth to that,” Langerud said. “This program has been studied several times by independent contractors that have done those evaluations, and there’ve been a handful of studies over the years looking at rainfall. They typically find rainfall increases up to 10 percent, maybe typically in that 5 to 10 percent range.
“Maybe those are not huge increases. We’re kind of working on the margins of the storms and having the ability of slightly changing the precipitation that falls from them. But a 5 to 10 percent increase in rainfall on the crops does make for a meaningful boost in production and economics.”
Langerud cited a study by North Dakota State University that shows a benefit/cost ratio of 12:1 for a 5 percent increase in rain and a 20:1 ratio for a 10 percent increase, when combined with hail suppression benefits.
Neshem questions that study because, he said, NDSU just plugged in numbers and didn’t take into account whether the cloud-seeding was actually helping increase rainfall. Others, including some state legislators, have questioned the cost of the program. The state contributes about $800,000 per biennium to the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board, plus staff costs. Counties provide about 2/3 of the funding, Langerud said. Neshem said Ward County budgeted $187,500 in 2017 for cloud seeding.
Whether the Atmospheric Resource Board agrees to cease cloud seeding in Ward County remains to be seen. The county could address the issue through its budget next year.
It’s a fight that’s been ongoing for years in the west and will likely continue. Last November, Bowman County voters decided to continue its weather modification program by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin.