Weather modification program attempts to prevent all HAIL from breaking LOOSE

By Kathy Hanks

The Hutchinson News

Hutchinson News Photo
Pilot Justin Pauley cleans a generator of silver iodide residue. The generators are at the end of each wing and hold a liquid form of the seeding agent. By Lindsey Bauman

LAKIN - For more than 30 years, a single-minded and dedicated group of individuals has concentrated their efforts from April through September on controlling the weather in western Kansas.

A new study indicates that work, done under the auspices of the Western Kansas Weather Modification Program, has made inroads in suppressing hailstorms, an ever-present threat for farmers and their crops.

The study by the Kansas Water Office, which partially funds the weather modification program, shows a decline in crop hail insurance claims in western Kansas counties that participate in the cloud-seeding program.

The original study, conducted in 1998, recently was updated to include crop hail insurance claim data through 2004, said Chris Gnau, an environmental scientist with the Kansas Water Office.

" ... We found the average difference in the loss-cost ratio was about 1.6 percent lower in the target area," Gnau said.

Loss cost identifies the percentage of the insured crop that was lost to hail damage in a calendar year.

"While that doesn't sound like much," Gnau said, "we're talking about large dollar amounts, which equal just half a million dollars on the average each year saved for the insurance companies.

"If you think about the annual amount spent on weather mod by the state - $120,000 - for every one dollar we spend there is a $5 savings to the insurance companies."

In addition to state funding, the Western Kansas Weather Modification Program's $590,000 budget this year is supplemented by two groundwater management districts and participating counties.

Cloud seeding

Tracking storms in the 11 counties that participate in the weather modification program is one part of manager Walt Geiger's job. The pressure - in the atmosphere and on Geiger - comes when trying to discern if a building cumulonimbus cloud possesses the potential for precipitation or hail.

Cloud-seeding operations occur day or night, depending on a storm's potential. Geiger calls in pilots for four planes - three that fly at the base of the storm cloud and one atop the cloud.

Planes at the base emit silver iodide through a generator and flares attached to the wings of the aircraft. Pilots seek out updrafts, which pull the seeding agent up into the storm cloud. The pilot flying his craft above the cloud drops dry ice.

Geiger determines if pilots seed for rain enhancement or hail suppression. More seeding agent is dispersed at a faster rate for hail suppression. Only one generator is used for rain enhancement, and flares never are used for that process.

"If we're seeding for hail suppression, it's our aim at the moment," Geiger said. "The side effect of that, under optimal conditions, is we also are seeding for increasing rainfall."

The history

Two miles north of Lakin and off U.S. 50, a winding dirt road leads to a radar site.

This area gave birth to the Western Kansas Weather Modification Program 31 years ago.

In the early 1970s, the Kansas Water Resources Board - today called the Kansas Water Office - joined forces with the Bureau of Reclamation in conducting several cloud-seeding experiments.

The Kansas Cumulus Cloud Project sparked the interest of officials with Western Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 1, Scott City.

"The groundwater district was in the early stages, with only a steering committee," said Keith Lebbin, retired manager of the water district. "The steering committee was looking at a way to help with declining groundwater."

After the initial cloud-seeding experiments, project leaders recommended implementation of a program to enhance precipitation and suppress hail.

Lebbin said the water district borrowed a radar unit from the Bureau of Reclamation, leased aircraft and began cloud seeding in the spring of 1975.

Seeding was done only during daylight hours, and there were no computers to aid project work. The technology relied upon by those involved in the project consisted of the loaned radar unit, a Magicall telephone, which provided quick access to pilots, a Motorola radio base station and rented aircraft.

The program continues today under the umbrella of GMD No. 1 in Scott City. Technological advances - high-speed computer technology, global positioning systems and updated radar - aid the group's efforts.

And in recent years, the Kansas Water Office study helped weather modifiers know where their efforts had been most effective.

Stats tell the tale

In 1998, Darrel L. Eklund, then a statistician with the state water office, evaluated the weather modification program with the help of co-workers Daljit Singh Jawa and Tina Kae Rajala.

"Weather modification does reduce hail damage," said Eklund, who collected county crop hail insurance claim information and calculated loss-cost data.

The study showed that precipitation declined by just 0.25 of an inch in target counties - Greeley, Kearny, Finney, Haskell, Lane and Ford - from 1941 to 1970, before cloud seeding operations began, when compared with a period from 1973 to 1993, when cloud seeding was in full swing.

Though weather modification coaxed only minimal increased rainfall, hail suppression efforts were more successful, Eklund said.

Between 1979 and 1993, hail damage to crops in the same six county-area dropped an estimated $60 million - nearly $4 million each year, Eklund said.

"There are several factors to consider," he said. "Whatever weather conditions developed that produced hail or the likelihood of hail approaching the target area, the weather mod program immediately focused efforts on hail suppression and discontinued efforts on precipitation enhancement.

"We simply don't know what precipitation averages would have been in the target area if cloud seeding efforts would have continued to focus on precipitation enhancement and not switched to hail suppression."

Protecting crops

Results of the Kansas Water Office study herald good news for the weather modification program, but state climatologist Mary Knapp says other aspects of hail suppression are worth consideration.

"You don't necessarily get fewer hailstorms," said Knapp, based at Kansas State University. "You get smaller hail, generally coming down as tiny hail. If you have smaller hail, there is less damage. Therefore, there is some success."

If the crop is worth more than the cost of participating in the weather modification program, Knapp said, "it might be a positive cost benefit."

Taxpayers in participating counties foot the bill for weather modification activities. That financial support is calculated by the amount of pasture land and farmland in each county. This year, the 11 participating counties and GMD No.1 and GMD No. 3 contributed $270,000 to the program's budget.

Drought brings doubt

While the program's objectives - rain enhancement and hail suppression - remain the same, success depends on the weather. If there are no clouds, there is no opportunity to seed.

On average, the decade of the 1990s was much wetter than normal for most of the state, according to Knapp. In those years, farmers successfully grew dryland corn in Greeley County.

"Now even the weeds are dying there," Knapp said.

Though some rain has fallen this year, the weather pattern already is unfavorable for weather modification, officials say.

Grant County Commissioner and farmer Carl Higgs said the last seven years have been so dry that it's difficult to determine if weather modification actually works.

"If there are no clouds, it's bad," Higgs said. "They still need to have clouds, and we aren't getting many of them anymore."

For Geiger, the project director, frustration centers more on the limited number of planes for seeding 8,000 square miles rather than cloudless skies.

"To do a considerably optimal job of hail reduction of up to 70 to 80 percent, you would need one plane for about a 600-square-mile area," Geiger said.

For rain enhancement, one plane is needed for seeding 900 square miles, Geiger said.

"The closest we ever got was when northwest Kansas was on board between 1997 through 2001, and we had nine planes for 17 counties," Geiger said. "There weren't really a large number of days when there was seeding over the entire area. So if there was a storm in the northwest region, we could have nine planes on the storm."

But Northwest Kansas Groundwater District No. 4, based in Colby, pulled out of the weather modification program after 2001. Water district director Wayne Bossert of Colby declined comment on reasons the district ended its three-year involvement in weather modification.

"We are on the sidelines," Bossert said. "We're not pro or con, just neutral."

Some controversy

While most of the 11 counties - Finney, Grant, Gray, Greeley, Hamilton, Haskell, Kearny, Lane, Scott, Stanton and Wichita - consistently participate in the program, some opt in and out.

Stevens County commissioners twice voted to participate - once in 1997 and again in 2002 - but questions arose about the program's effectiveness during drought years.

"There was no controversy then (in 1997)," Stevens County Commissioner Gary Baker said. "It was a good year moisture-wise. In 2002, there was extreme drought. That hurt us. We were trying to do weather mod in the worst of all years and that raised the ire of 20 to 30 people who were opposed.

"One of the reasons we didn't do it again was I don't think this program is funded well enough to do as much good as it has in the past."

And Baker doesn't plan to propose participating anytime soon in cloud seeding efforts.

"It's not worth opening that wound," he said, referring to taxpayers opposed to the county's financial obligation for cloud seeding. "I have never doubted its worth. I also know it's one of the most emotional issues we've ever talked about in terms of groundwater. It's a very touchy subject."

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

Copyright 2006 The Hutchinson News