By Maddie Stone
As the first winter storms rolled through this month, a King Air C90 turboprop aircraft contracted by the hydropower company Idaho Power took to the skies over southern Idaho to make it snow.
Flying across the cloud tops, the aircraft dropped flares that burned as they descended, releasing plumes of silver iodide that caused ice crystals to form and snow to fall over the mountains. In the spring, that snow will melt and run downstream, replenishing reservoirs, irrigating fields and potentially generating hundreds of thousands of additional megawatt hours of carbon-free hydropower for the state.
Idaho Power, a private utility serving more than half a million customers in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon, has used cloud seeding to pad its hydroelectric power production for nearly two decades. But over the past few years, the utility has ramped up its snow-making efforts at the behest of state officials concerned about dwindling water supplies.
This year, the western United States is in the midst of one of its worst droughts in recent memory. As of Tuesday, about one-third of the country — mainly west of the Rocky Mountains — is experiencing severe to exceptional drought. Nearly all of Idaho is under at least a severe drought.
Today, Idaho cost-shares the cloud seeding program, estimated to produce 1 million acre-feet of additional water annually, to the tune of about $2 million a year. In April, the state passed a bill to expand its cloud seeding efforts.
Residents of the Gem State aren’t the only ones embracing cloud seeding, a 75-year-old technology that many scientists still view with skepticism. With a recent experiment providing the first unambiguous evidence that cloud seeding can increase snowpack levels, research into artificial rainmaking is undergoing a small renaissance.
As the West experiences a historic drought and climate models point to more dry spells in the future, states are doubling down on their cloud seeding programs.
“I definitely think it’s one of those things that we can’t ignore, as far as drought mitigation,” said Julie Gondzar, the cloud seeding program manager for Wyoming. While cloud seeding won’t end a drought, Gondzar says, it can “slowly, incrementally” increase snowpack over time. Right now, every little bit helps.
Skepticism to success
The premise of cloud seeding is simple. Certain clouds contain large amounts of “supercooled liquid” water, or water that exists in a liquid state below the freezing point. At temperatures below about minus-5 degrees Celsius (23 Fahrenheit), adding particles of silver iodide to that water can promote ice crystal formation, resulting in additional snowfall.
But while the basic principles of cloud seeding were worked out in the 1940s and more than 50 countries were running cloud seeding programs as of 2017, scientists have long struggled to quantify how effective cloud seeding is — if it even works at all.
A six-year study that Wyoming conducted from 2008 to 2013 — among the most ambitious done thus far — estimated that cloud seeding can boost precipitation within seedable clouds by about 3.3 percent over the winter season. But those findings did not meet key thresholds for statistical significance, meaning scientists were unable to say for sure that the extra snowfall produced by seeded clouds wasn’t the result of chance.
Other studies have measured gains of up to 10 percent but have been similarly unable to prove that the benefits were actually due to seeding, according to Sarah Tessendorf, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) who studies cloud seeding.
“Most statistical programs,” studies that compare the amount of precipitation from randomly seeded clouds and unseeded ones, “have failed to meet statistical significance,” Tessendorf said. “And that’s been really hard to overcome. The signal from cloud seeding is often very small and within the range of natural variability.”
In 2017, NCAR teamed up with a consortium of universities and Idaho Power to launch a first-of-its-kind experiment called SNOWIE (Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds: The Idaho Experiment). From January to March, the researchers used specialized aircraft to inject silver iodide into clouds over the Payette Basin north of Boise and measured the impact on snow using a suite of aerial and ground-based radar, snow gauges and models.
The results, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, were unambiguous: Cloud seeding works. On three occasions, the researchers saw ice crystals form inside seeded clouds in the exact zigzag pattern the aircraft had flown.