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In Kansas, a 'Pilot Program' for Storms Is Taking Off

September 21, 1997|TRACI CARL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLBY, Kan. — Meteorologist David Beer does more than predict the weather. He also tries to protect farmers' crops.

People sometimes ask whether he's toying with nature when he directs planes that fly in front of thunderstorms, releasing chemicals designed to either reduce the power of a hailstorm or coax rain from a cloud.

Beer, an assistant program manager for the Western Kansas Weather Modification program in Colby, says his job is just another tool farmers have, like crop dusting or irrigating.

"I figure, God put little bugs on the Earth, and farmers spend a lot of dollars trying to kill bugs every year," he said.

Meteorologists have been seeding clouds in western Kansas since 1972. The program, with an annual budget of $800,000, has been run since 1975 by the Western Kansas Groundwater Management District.

In southwest Kansas, each participating county can levy a small property tax to pay for the program, which costs 5.2 cents for each acre of cropland and 2.2 cents for each acre of grassland in those counties. The Kansas Water Plan Fund provides an extra $130,000-- $10,000 for each participating southwest Kansas county.

In April, the program was expanded to parts of northwest Kansas. Farmers who irrigate their fields pay $181,000 in an annual assessment; the state matches that amount.

The program has nine pilots and nine airplanes, six in the southern target area of roughly 10,000 square miles and three in the northwest target area of about 5,000 square miles.

There are two principal meteorologists and an assistant meteorologist in the project offices in Lakin and in Colby. The jobs last through the storm season, roughly from late April to late September.

After several curious residents wandered into his office to quiz him about the program--in its first year at Colby--Beer put a sign on his door that reads, "Come in. Mad meteorologist at work."

Every day about 8 a.m., Beer arrives at his office in the local airport and begins compiling a forecast. He watches as a storm builds and decides whether it is a candidate for weather modification.

The planes carry a silver iodide solution that is released into the updraft of a thunderstorm through a flame that vaporizes the silver iodide into particles.

In dry conditions, the silver iodide particles help more raindrops to form in a rain cloud by providing a nucleus on which water can collect.

In a cloud that produces hail, the particles act as freezing nuclei, multiplying the number of hailstones that form and increasing competition for available "supercooled" water, or water that has maintained its liquid state at temperatures below freezing.

The more hailstones the silver iodide helps to create, the smaller the hail. The smaller the hailstones, the more likely they are to cause less damage or to melt before hitting the ground.

It is not an exact science, Beer said. Soon after he came to Colby to start the program, golf ball-size hail pummeled the town. "That made me look really good," he said with a grin. "I can't even protect my own town."

State officials say the program does work.

Preliminary results of a recent study found that the program was effective in reducing damage from bad hailstorms that occur every 10 or 15 years, said Darrel Eklund, water resource manager for the Kansas Water Office.

A 1994 study by the Kansas Water Office estimated that hail damage to crops decreased 27% from 1979 to 1993, saving a six-county area about $60 million.

The same study found no effect on precipitation, which declined 0.25 inches from a 30-year period before cloud-seeding to the 1979-93 cloud-seeding period. The change was considered within normal precipitation variation.

Ed Banning, a farm manager and consultant in Garden City, said he hasn't seen a decrease in hail in southwest Kansas. But he believes the program is effective.

"The alternative is taking your chances with Mother Nature," he said. "This is some attempt at trying to regulate Mother Nature, and that's a pretty big task to take on."

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