Can cloud seeding save California?

With the state looking at spending billions on fire, it’s worth a shot.

California’s current cloud seeding projects increase its water supply by 4 percent a year.

According to 2014 figures from state’s Department of Water Resources, cloud seeding increases the state’s water supply by at least 4 percent a year. Cloud seeding turns out to be an extraordinarily cheap source of extra water. It’s environmentally preferable to pumping the aquifers; orders of magnitude less expensive than desalinization; and more cost-effective than conservation measures.

Record heat…

The exceptional thing about California’s 2020 fire season may be how routine “worst-ever” is starting to sound. Pulled by the unstoppable locomotive of global warming, each new year becomes a contender for a new worst year. July 2020 was the hottest month in California’s recorded history. The state’s five warmest years occurred in between 2014 and 2018. Worldwide, 2019 was the second warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880. Thus far, 2020 has an excellent shot at the hottest-ever title.

…and drought.

Of the many consequences of warming, the deadliest of these is drought. Or so concludes historian Brian Fagan in his 2008 book The Great Warming, a study of a climate anomaly between 950 and 1250 AD.

Unlike hurricanes and stranded polar bears, drought is not telegenic — until it produces fire.

Unlike hurricanes and stranded polar bears, drought is not telegenic — until it produces fire. While California has always suffered from periodic droughts — it may be falsely reassuring to speak of swings around the current trend line as “periods” at all — the last decade in California has been something else.

The Forgotten History

California’s first experiments with weather modification date back to the early 1950s, not long after the discovery of the technique for cloud seeding at General Electric Research Laboratory in upstate New York in 1946.

Statistics and the Skeptics: an epistemological dilemma

In the early 1960s, a well-designed, multi-year study of cloud seeding in Israel concluded that cloud seeding in the north of the country increased rainfall by 11 percent. (It had problems in the south, most likely from desert dust). A 3-year program in South Africa in the 1990s confirmed the possibility of hygroscopic, or warm-cloud seeding.

Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker,, 1956.

Fire and rain

If the first meteorologist ever hired by the U.S. Government, in 1843, had been correct, California would have nothing to worry about: its fires would have created their own rain.

J.M.W. Turner, “The Eruption of the Soufriere Mountains in the Island of St. Vincent, 30th April 1812” © University of Liverpool Art Gallery & Collections, The Bridgeman Art Library
J.M.W. Turner, “Sunset,” circa 1830
James Pollard Espy

Particle physics

Epsy was again almost onto something — the key role of particles in the atmosphere. Without dust in the air, we would have no clouds or rain, just a few high-altitude pure ice clouds. Water droplets form around some impurity, typically dust and sometimes salt, known as condensation nuclei.

What’s in the box

The Central Paradox of Artificial Intelligence is that systems complicated enough to behave intelligently are not simple enough for humans to understand, while systems simple enough to be understandable to humans are not complicated enough to behave intelligently.

If the black box seems to work, but you’re not sure how, do you use it anyway?

If an AI appears to be working perfectly, but humans are incapable of understanding how it works, do we use it? Some of those calling for “understandable” AI would say no.

Various pathways by which water vapor is transformed into various types of cloud particles and precipitation.

Hope in the West?

In 2017, the University of Wyoming used specially instrumented aircraft to detail — to the satisfaction of almost any science skeptic — the physics of the progression of silver iodide crystals to falling snow.

Will Bates writes about science, technology, and business. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and numerous magazines.

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