Editor’s Note: Matthew Watson is a Reader in Natural Hazards at the UK’s University of Bristol. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.
How desirable or easy is "cloud seeding?"
There are "good and evil" uses, says researcher
Wimbledon, 2026. Bright blue skies and a wonderful late afternoon sun lights up the lush green grass of centre court. Out strides the British number one and four-time winner, Andy Henman, to the cheers of the excitable, partisan crowd.
Somewhere nearby, at the headquarters of WeatherMod Inc, a group of technicians are busily checking data, confident that their efforts have worked. They have been in contact with two pilots who have just completed their spray sorties and are returning to land at Heathrow’s new third runway.
Thanks to the delivery of four kilograms of, in its pure form, a yellowish powder known as Silver Iodide (AgI) into clouds upwind of London, it is now raining over the Salisbury Plain, 100 miles away, and the rain predicted for later in SW19 is now 92% less likely.
This scenario probably sounds a little far-fetched, and not least the bit about the repeatedly successful homegrown tennis player. However, weather modification occurs more often than most people are aware. For example, as I wrote that first paragraph I genuinely didn’t realize that a Weather Modification Incorporated actually already exists in Fargo, North Dakota. They, and other companies like them have sprung up over the past few years promising to manage water for crops, clear fog and even protect wedding days from ill-timed hail.
But two questions need further investigation to consider the likelihood of the above scenario at Wimbledon: can we do it (that is, does it work) and should we do it? Neither, it turns out, are particularly easy to answer.
Changing the weather
In order to make rain several processes need to occur. First, small particles known as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) are required onto which water can condense. Then these droplets need to grow to a size where they precipitate out of the cloud, finally falling where and when required.
In our hypothetical scenario we would therefore need to be able to either control or at least predict accurately the concentration of CCN, the rate at which droplets form, and the evaporation rates within the clouds. We’d also also need to have some handle on the rate and direction in which rain would fall.
In reality, cloud seeding with AgI – the current default option – only really tackles the first of these processes, forming the condensation nuclei. Even if clouds are seeded, it is still a matter of debate as to whether they actually create much additional rain. While companies claim success, some scientists are more wary. Although other seeding agents (and methodologies) exist, it is worth noting that, in the case of AgI, the nature of the clouds into which the particles are injected will govern the outcome.
Seeding works best in clouds which have a pre-existing mixture of water droplets and ice, as this type of nucleation requires ice-crystals to form. Following the production of CCN we’d then need to be able to predict, through computer modeling, how small droplets will form into rain and eventually fall.
One of the major drawbacks of cloud seeding is a lack of proof that it works: given weather forecasting remains imperfect, how would you know what would have happened without intervention? The second part of the question is arguably even harder to approach. What are the ethics of removing water from one part of the world, even on a small scale, and moving it somewhere else? Is this “messing with nature” or “playing God”? Water is, after all, the most precious commodity on Earth.
Let’s assume for now that it is possible to alter local weather patterns and to prevent or cause rain. This could be used for both good and evil, and the potential for abuse is worth considering. While manipulating the weather as a weapon is now explicitly outlawed by the U.N.’s ENMOD treaty, there have been efforts to alter the outcome of conflict using cloud seeding.
Deliberate and accidental effects from commercial activity also seem possible. That dreamy, rain-free wedding ordered up by an anxious billionaire could easily ruin a school sports day in a nearby town.
The question of attribution is possibly the most challenging. Without any alternative outcomes to analyze, how can you really know what are the impacts from your actions. Some even say, quite incorrectly, that cloud seeding experiments caused floods, such as those that killed 35 people in the English village of Lynmouth in 1952. Expert opinion leans strongly against that idea being correct. Nonetheless, conspiracy theories persist. If, in our hypothetical Wimbledon scenario, bits of Wiltshire flooded, who would foot the bill?
It’s certainly possible in theory to prevent rain in one place by using cloud seeding to induce it in another, upwind. But there are huge challenges and the jury is still out about whether such efforts really work.
There are some very good causes, such as inducing rainfall in Sub-Saharan Africa during drought, where I would sanction intervention. For something as frivolous as a sporting event I feel differently. Just last weekend I played cricket for four hours in unrelenting drizzle (thanks Skip). While not a massively enjoyable experience it was at least familiar, and is part of the essence of both cricket and tennis. There’s some comfort in that.
Republished under a Creative Commons license from The Conversation.