Scientific-based cloud seeding took off after World War II

By Kathy Hanks

The Hutchinson News

For centuries, men attempted to coax moisture from the sky.

Napoleon's army fired cannons and guns at the heavens in attempts to force rain that would muddy the ground between him and his attackers.

A scientist in 1839 experimented with building large fires to generate updrafts, believing that in a humid atmosphere, cumulus clouds would develop and produce rains.

During dry periods, kites loaded with dynamite were sent into the clouds. And others desperate for rain strung dead snakes belly-side up on a fence in hopes of enticing moisture.

After World War II, though, weather modification activities incorporated the sound principles of cloud physics rather than vain attempts at poking holes in the sky.

The first field experiments by Vincent J. Schaefer in 1946 at the General Electric Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y., significantly advanced the science of weather modification and cloud seeding.

Schaefer's discovery changed the course of Tom Henderson's life. Henderson, of Fresno, Calif., is an international authority on weather modification.

He recalls his first cloud-seeding flight in 1948, when he was the senior hydrologist at California Hydro Electric Power Co.

The president of the company had read in The New York Times about Schaefer's initial discovery and told Henderson to explore the idea.

"It sounded like hooey to me," Henderson said during a recent phone interview.

He flew with the plane's doors open so he could hand-toss the seeding pellets into the cloud.

After 300 flights over eight years, Henderson admits he was hooked by the results.

"We nailed down what Mother Nature could do and tried to imitate her," he said.

By 1960, Henderson formed his own company, Atmospherics Inc., and became one of the first to work in weather modification on a commercial scale.

"Before I knew it, I had six different contracts," he said. "We're still doing the project for Kings River Conservation District. Then I started roaming the world. I ended up visiting 17 countries where we had contracts, or we instructed them how to do it."

Atmospherics Inc., Henderson said, is an operations and research company specializing in the field of applied meteorology.

Yet even Henderson admits that cloud seeding - despite years of research and feasibility studies - remains difficult, and some remain skeptical.

"We still haven't proved it to everybody," he said. "It's still controversial. If people don't understand it, they don't accept it. "

But Henderson is a believer, and he says it's worth spending a quarter of a million dollars if you can produce half an inch of rain.

"We do projects for hydroelectric here, and the studies indicate we only have to increase precipitation by .5 percent to more than pay for the project," Henderson said. "If you can produce a half an inch of rain in a cloud that wouldn't have produced anything, it's very valuable."

05/07/2006; 02:31:22 AM

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