Weather modification program attempts
to prevent all HAIL from breaking LOOSE
By Kathy Hanks
The Hutchinson News
|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
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
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
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
"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
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
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."
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
And in recent years, the Kansas Water Office study
helped weather modifiers know where their efforts had been most
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,
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."
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
"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
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
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
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
"We are on the sidelines," Bossert said. "We're not
pro or con, just neutral."
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."