Weather Modification

(This column was first published in the September 23, 1996 Buffalo News.)

We no sooner escape the wrath of Hurricane Fran when an anonymous lake effect storm moves in from the west to drop seven inches of rain on the Town of Tonawanda. Dozens of streets are closed and hundreds of basements flooded.

People are terribly upset. On a TV news segment one homeowner yells at his supervisor that he will remember him at election time. Having been in the Amherst flood back in 1985, I know how frustrated and angry that man is.

Can't somebody do something? That is the question that keeps recurring to you as the water rises around your home and begins to run through your cellar walls.

In Amherst several things have been done. Perhaps most important, a diversion channel now drains off some Ellicott Creek water when the stream rises above flood level. But as the Corps of Engineers colonel told area residents in 1985, "You're never completely safe from flooding anywhere." (I recalled that comment once when I was hiking in a hard rain along a narrow Appalachian Trail ridge, the ground sloping down on either side for hundreds of feet. Despite that, the terrific downpour filled the ridge top with water – and my hiking boots as well. I also wondered if the Law of Gravity had been temporarily suspended.)

Why can't we do something about the weather? A chapter in a delightful book, "Slide Mountain: or the Folly of Owning Nature," by Theodore Steinberg (University of California Press) responds to this question and others as well. The title of the book derives from Mark Twain's story of a landslide that took one man's land down a mountainside onto another's. The uphill farmer claimed that his property had just moved – and in the story won his case in court.

We older folks recall that we can do something about the weather. Back in 1946, Vincent Schaefer of General Electric demonstrated that cloud seeding with dry ice can cause rain. His discovery created a sensation. Everybody talks about the weather, but here, finally, was somebody doing something about it.

Entrepreneurs immediately followed up the discovery and soon fifteen companies were seeding clouds over an area a dozen times the size of New England.

But there is reason for concern here. One man's solution can be another man's problem. If you create precipitation in Area A, what about the drought you create or extend in Area B downwind from Area A?

Two court cases addressed this dilemma. In the early 1950s a rainmaker was hired to seed clouds in the Catskill Mountains to respond to a water shortage in New York City. A Catskill country club sued the city for scaring off sun-loving vacationers. The New York Supreme Count found that the welfare of millions of city residents outweighed damage to the private club.

But in Pennsylvania a group of farmers sued to stop cloud seeding upwind by a fruit growers' association. The fruit growers sought to prevent damaging hailstorms. But now the farmers stood among their crops and watched as, they claimed, airplanes caused rain clouds to disappear before they reached their property. As one farmer said, "If there has to be talking to a...rainmaker,... I would rather do it on my knees, not on the telephone."

This time the court found partly for each side and came down hard for federal control of weather modification.

But that appears to have ended the matter. It simply did not prove worthwhile to fight out in the courts or bureaucracy each attempt to change the weather, so today we once again have to live with what we get.