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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hail Damage Makes States Take to Skies

LAKIN, Kansas -- Water is prized in western Kansas, where aquifers are suffering and farming is the way of life. A scant centimeter of rain can mean all the difference in a growing season.

But when precipitation comes in the form of fist-sized hail, it can damage and even destroy crops.

That's where the Western Kansas Weather Modification Program and other cloud-seeding operations across the western United States come in. The Kansas program is among about 10 that tinker with the weather -- either by trying to cut the size of hail or boost rainfall and snowpack. They do it largely by shooting up storm clouds with silver iodide.

Other countries also have used or considered using weather modification. The United Arab Emirates has investigated cloud seeding to help increase rainfall. China has announced plans to use cloud seeding to manage rainfall during the 2008 Olympics, and Indonesia has used it to try to fight fires.

Cloud seeding has a host of critics, from those who say there is no good science to support claims that it works, to others who raise concerns about the possibility that it actually may cause less rain and harm the environment.

But as water supplies show signs of stress around the globe and insurance companies add up hail damage payouts, weather modification programs persist.

"What's beginning to happen is that worldwide, people are realizing that water, especially fresh water, is a very precious resource, and we need to do what we can to increase the availability of that resource," said Bruce Boe, director of meteorology for Weather Modification, a North Dakota-based company that has been seeding clouds since the 1960s. The company has contracts in the United States, Africa, southeast Asia and Canada, where it does business with insurance companies.

"They'll say, 'We paid out $500 million to $600 million in claims on hail damage, and the forecast is for more hail storms, so we want you to come in for a couple million dollars and take care of the hail,"' Boe said.

Cloud seeding was developed after World War II to try to increase rainfall. The theory is that the silver iodide, which has a structure that resembles ice, creates raindrops in the clouds, increasing precipitation and reducing moisture for hail formation.

In the United States, weather modification programs are largely run by individual states and counties. But a measure before the U.S. Senate would allocate $10 million per year to establish the Weather Mitigation Advisory and Research Board, which would study weather modification programs and develop policy.

Kansas started its program in 1975. The Western Kansas Weather Modification Program now covers about 21,000 square kilometers and is used about 85 percent of the time for hail reduction. The program, which receives state and local funding, was briefly extended into northwest Kansas in the late 1990s. But residents became concerned that cloud seeding might have been reducing their rainfall and voted the program out.

The program operates April through September with four planes. Program manager Walt Geiger monitors the weather from a radar station at a tiny airport in Lakin. When he sees a storm developing -- one with "lots of strong vertical action" that could be a hail producer -- Geiger notifies the pilots, who then head into the storms in their single-engine planes, armed with nerves and bayonet-sized canisters of silver iodide.

A 1998-1999 study of the Kansas program found that while there was a statistically significant reduction in hail that year, there was no evidence to support the program's attempts to increase rainfall.