June 15, 2006

Farmer’s hail cannons spark storm

The cannon is a shock wave generator that is supposed to disrupt the formation of hailstones. An explosive charge of acetylene gas and air is fired in the lower chamber of the machine. As the energy passes through the neck and into the cone of the cannon, it develops into a force that becomes a shock wave. The shock wave then travels at the speed of sound into and through the clouds. This is said to disrupt the growth of the hailstones. The cannon is fired every four seconds as the storm approaches. It affects a 500-meter radius. SOURCE: www. hailcannon.com

Richard Dutton, maintenance manager at Southern Colorado Farms, prepared to test a hail cannon Wednesday. Dutton said, “They work. . . . You can actually see it change in the clouds sometimes depending on the strength of the storm.” (KRISTIN GOODE, THE GAZETTE)

Neighbors say devices block rain


CENTER - Farmer John Smith’s spinach is dense, green and unblemished, just as it should be.

His iceberg lettuce is still tiny, but healthy, with leaves sprouting whole and unmarred.

They’ll hopefully stay that way, Smith says, thanks to the eight hail cannons stationed across his 3,800-acre Southern Colorado Farms, aimed at the sky and poised to fire off sound waves that supposedly stop the nasty ice pellets that can ravage his crop. Smith believes in his cannons. So do a lot of his neighbors in the San Luis Valley. That’s the problem. Although Smith maintains that his cannons, $40,000 apiece, can stave off the damage from summer storms, others are convinced they’re doing more than that — stopping the rain as well, drying up an already parched land and killing their livelihood.

“We need all the water we can get, and they’re stopping it from raining,” said Don Evans, one of the ranchers upset with Smith.

He’s become their scapegoat, said Smith, a former district attorney in Alamosa.

“Nobody likes the drought,” he said. “It has to be someone’s fault.”

If some ranchers blame Smith, they’re also reserving some of their wrath for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which recently renewed Smith’s weather modification permit for the next year. The board concluded that the cannons’ effectiveness was questionable, but that there was no evidence they were causing harm.

They also decided to study whether Smith’s cannons do what he claims they do — and what they’re doing to everybody else.

“That’s the compromise we tried to reach,” said Joe Busto, a hearing officer for the board.

In Colorado, where Fort Lupton and Brighton are the only other places where farmers use cannons, the research on whether they actually work is slim, said Nolan Doesken of Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.

“Without some solid data, it is really hard to judge one way or the other,” he said.

But the World Meteorological Organization dismisses cannons as nonsense, saying that “there is neither a scientific basis nor a credible hypothesis to support such activities.”

A pair of Dutch meteorologists recently published a study concluding that cannons have “no significant effect” on hail. If rocket explosions and thunder can’t destroy hailstones, they wrote, “it follows that surface-emitted sound waves . . . will be even less effective — except maybe to annoy the neighborhood.”

As far as Smith is concerned, the proof is in the Fresh Express bags of prewashed, crisp lettuce and spinach found in any grocery store.

The hard part about growing such crops is keeping them intact. If hailstones rip holes in the leaves, the damage will make customers not want to buy it, said Smith’s administrative manager Mike Jones.

Smith got the cannons to show his suppliers he was doing everything he could to deliver the product, he said. And although he hasn’t documented it, he said he knows the cannons help him do that.

“All I know is the neighbors get hail, and we don’t,” said Smith, who fired the cannons for a total of seven hours last summer.

He’s not the only believer. In Mississippi last year, Nissan installed cannons to guard against the hail that threatened its newly manufactured cars, much to the displeasure of neighbors who didn’t appreciate the constant booming. According to news reports, Nissan officials insist they work, saying they’ve seen hail falling in the area, but not over the plant.

In the valley, some of Smith’s neighbors say they reap the benefits of proximity to Southern Colorado Farms.

“In recent years, we have not heard of many people who’ve had to make insurance claims against hail,” Richard and Janet Noe wrote in an e-mail to the board.

One thing that’s certain, Smith said, is they don’t stop the rain. If they did, he said, he wouldn’t use them.

“If we were injuring you in any way, we’d quit it immediately,” Smith said.

In Moffat, 30 miles away, Jennifer Alexander and Virginia Sutherland don’t believe him. They suspect Smith realizes the harm he’s causing and doesn’t care.

“You see a rain cloud coming,” Sutherland said. “Then you hear boom, boom, boom, and you see the cloud fray out.”

The ranchers’ theory is that the sound waves also cause rain clouds to evaporate.

And that hurts the ranchers. “If it don’t rain, we don’t have grass,” Evans said. “If we don’t have grass, we can’t feed our cows. There you go.”

“People are in danger of losing their ranches,” said Alexander, who together with her husband, Darell, has 240 acres they usually lease for grazing. They might not have enough grass this year to do that, she said.

“Before the cannons, we had rain and we had grass,” Alexander said. “It has gradually progressed to less and less rain, less and less grass. Now the pastures are as dry as a bone.”

No one thinks Smith is responsible for the drought, said Vicky Phillips, a lifelong resident of Center. But if there’s any chance he could be making it worse, she said, he should stop.

She and her husband, Jim Warner, have 2,100 acres and the same desperate refrain as every other rancher: not enough rain. “Everyone here is suffering,” she said.

“If anyone is doing anything that could chase the moisture away, it should be stopped,” Phillips said.

She and her husband joined other ranchers at a meeting Wednesday in Center, where state officials explained their plan to study Smith’s cannons over the next five years with help from Doesken, the state climatologist, and volunteers who will collect rain and hail information.

He’s got no strong opinions on the matter, Doesken promised at Wednesday's meeting.

But residents shouldn’t forget — “You are the driest location in Colorado,” he said. Average annual rainfall in the area is 7 inches.

Smith’s employees will set up rain gauges and help collect data. So will some of the ranchers, even as they search for a way to fight the board’s decision and Smith’s cannons.

“We’re going to be his worst nightmare,” Alexander said, “if we can make it possible.”