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Port: Weather modification is more a handout than an earnest effort to make it rain

columnist Rob Port

With a severe drought having put its boot on the throat of North Dakota's agriculture industry, simmering resentment over the state's weather modification efforts have come to the surface.

Seven North Dakota counties — Bowman, Burke, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward, Williams, and a

part of Slope — operate cloud seeding programs. The intent is to increase rainfall while heading damaging weather like hail storms.

Does it work? There is no clear evidence that it does, though anecdotally we have indications of a dubious sort of efficacy.

Darin Langerud, director of the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board which oversees cloud seeding programs in our state, told the Bismarck Tribune that weather modification efforts have suppressed hail by 45 percent and increased rainfall by 5 to 10 percent.

But farmers I've spoken to, people whose prosperity hinges upon the weather, call those claims bogus. Both storms and weather modification flights can be tracked online. Minot-area farmer Nathan Smith says he's watched cloud seeding flights dissipate storms which could have brought much needed rain.

As for protecting crops from hail, Smith says that's baloney. He says that farmers in Ward County, where he resides, pay premiums for hail insurance that are as much as 30 percent higher than neighboring counties without weather modification programs.

In recent decades the number of places both here in North Dakota and nationally which fund weather modification programs has shrunk dramatically. "The National Research Council said

the United States invested more than $20 million a year in weather modification research in the

late 1970s, but now spends less than $500,000 a year," the Associated Press reported recently. "It said only a handful of research programs exist worldwide."

Yet, here in North Dakota, spending on weather modification has been increasing. The state’s Atmospheric Resource Board, which oversees cloud seeding programs, saw its expenditures on operations and salaries jump 20 percent from the 2013-15 biennium to the current budget cycle. Meanwhile the grants doled out by the agency jumped more than 50 percent.

Is this money helping farmers? Is it easing the strain of the drought agriculture producers are suffering through?

There's no definitive answer. But then, maybe more rain isn't really the goal.

When I was talking with Smith he told me the weather modification program was a "slush fund for the guys operating airports and airplanes."

There's the rub.

Why would we pour millions of dollars into an enterprise as hubristic and futile as attempting to control the weather, even as the scientific underpinnings of those efforts are in doubt just about everywhere else in the country?

Maybe it's not about the weather. Maybe it's a handout to interests who have a stake in operating airports and airplanes.

It's time to stop this madness. Man cannot create rain. At best, we can change the timing and location of it, and that's hardly something worth spending taxpayer dollars on.

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