Project Management Institute

Make It Rain

New Cloud-Seeding Projects Aim to Change the Weather

As droughts become the new normal in some parts of the world, more governments and private organizations are sponsoring projects to modify weather patterns. From India to the United States, Morocco to Argentina, cloud-seeding projects are sending pilots directly into cloud banks. There, the planes shoot flares of superfine salt particles to create raindrops or silver iodide to create snow.

Fifty-two countries now have cloud-seeding programs, according to the World Meteorological Organization, 10 more than four years ago. Bloomberg estimates that the Chinese government spends hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars each year funding cloud-seeding projects in 22 of its 23 provinces. There were 55 cloud-seeding projects in just the United States in 2014, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—about one-fifth in parched Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works recently sponsored its first cloud-seeding project since 2002, a US$550,000 effort to boost the region’s rainfall levels.

In the Indian state of Maharashtra, which is reeling from a deep, prolonged drought, a US$4.5 million, three-month cloud-seeding program was completed in 2015—the largest initiative of its kind ever attempted in the country. “Our situation is severe,” the state’s minister of revenue, Eknath Khadse, told Bloomberg. “There is no other technology available in the world to bring more rains. We must be willing to try it.” During the project’s execution phase, when a cloud-seeding flight would indeed spark rain, residents danced in the streets.

“Cloud seeding is no kind of black magic. It’s applied microphysics,” says Bruce Boe, vice president of meteorology, Weather Modification Inc., Fargo, North Dakota, USA. The company is the world’s largest private aerial cloud-seeding organization, with a portfolio spanning six continents. Governments typically sponsor Weather Modification’s projects (e.g., enhance rainfall in Turkey, suppress hail in Canada), but not always. In Papua New Guinea, a company sponsored a project to increase rainfall during the dry season to boost the power coming from its hydroelectric dams.

“The schedule varies from project to project, but for a new program, with no infrastructure in place, we typically need 60 days to mobilize,” Mr. Boe says. This period involves transporting ground-based equipment, aircraft and radar technology to the project site and sourcing the right talent. “Cloud-seeding projects aren’t so widespread that you have a large number of experienced people waiting in the wings,” he says. “So we have a cadre of people that we use for our programs.”

“We advocate cloud seeding be used as a long-term water management tool, and we’re seeing more government stakeholders understand the need for that long-term program management.”

—Bruce Boe, Weather Modification Inc., Fargo, North Dakota, USA

His company has also launched technology-transfer programs to meet the growing appetite for cloud-seeding projects. In Maharashtra, India, for instance, the Weather Modification team is now engaged in a project to train local pilots, meteorologists and radar technicians to execute cloud-seeding initiatives on their own. His team is careful to manage expectations about the benefits of cloud seeding.

“You can’t expect to seed the cloud and in a week the drought will be over,” says Mr. Boe. “We advocate cloud seeding be used as a long-term water management tool, and we’re seeing more government stakeholders understand the need for that long-term program management.”

Sponsors aren’t the only ones in need of persuasion. Although cloud-seeding technology has been around for decades, it’s not widely understood. In some areas, residents have expressed fears that a cloud-seeding project will spread potentially harmful chemicals or increase precipitation by robbing it from another area. (There is no evidence cloud-seeding harms the atmosphere or prevents rainfall from occurring downwind.)


Aircraft used for a cloud-seeding project in Hyderabad, India


Active stakeholder management from the project’s start can assuage those fears, project leaders have found. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., for instance, sponsored a project in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, USA to boost water flow into an irrigation district by triggering greater snowfall. Before activating its cloud-seeding machines, the project team created public-facing documents to answer anticipated questions.

Mr. Boe says his organization makes a habit of conducting stakeholder outreach—often via town hall-style meetings—early on.

“We’re talking to stakeholders and soliciting their input long before the project execution. Because if there’s public resistance or not enough public interest, the project might never even get started.” —Kate Rockwood

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