This monthly column takes some crazy sounding ideas and applies them to the field of Ag Tech. The purpose of this is purely entertainment, but hey, if we can spread ideas or ignite imaginations, how awesome is that?
Rain follows the plow. A justification for settling the west during the 1800s was that human activity affected a permanent change in the climate of arid and semi-arid regions of the U.S. These areas became more humid, and consequently caused more rainfall. Before this rhetoric, the region was known as the Great American Desert, which goes from the east side of the Rocky Mountains to about the middle of North Dakota.
The correlation at the time was that when settlement happened, those areas experienced wetter than average years. Climatologists of the day chalked it up to anything from the first cultivation of soil in human history, which released the moisture in the air that caused rain, to newly planted trees, train smoke or even metal in the rails or telegraph wires.
Fast forward 120 years to Mount Washington Observatory. Backwards-engineering of clouds has become a practice. This process entails the catching and evaporation of clouds until only cloud-seeds made of dust and minerals remain.
In fact, this is exactly how clouds form. Clouds condense around tiny airborne particles called condensation nuclei. While clouds can form without this process, it's definitely more rare.
A technology called cloud seeding has been around since the 1940s. This concept is used when airplanes fly into the inflow of the cloud and disperse silver iodide, potassium iodide and/or dry ice. These elements act as cloud-seeds that will make vaporized water condense around them, which produces greater amounts of rain.
North Dakota has been practicing cloud seeding for quite some time. To this day, many counties in the state each spend nearly $250,000 per year on the technology. In fact, the highly active counties in the state fall into the exact demographic of the old "Great American Desert" area. North Dakota is one of only three other states in the U.S. that use rain enhancement programs, along with Texas and California.
A severe drought has come to pass in North Dakota, causing many farmers to question the validity of the programs. Some even skepticize the technology enough to claim an opposite effect resulting from the dispersion of rain clouds - drought.
In no defense of either side, humans are causing something to happen. Coupled with the reverse-engineering cloud research from Mount Washington Observatory and the reconstruction of clouds from those seeds in various conditions, we are no doubt unlocking new potential.
Harnessing the cloud
A general principle is that matter cannot be made or destroyed. That means all the hydrogen and oxygen available on planet Earth will remain in the same quantity it exists today, which is the same quantity it was 5,000 years ago. Given what we know now, it's the same quantity that will exist forever into the future.
While the quantity remains the same, it doesn't mean that it won't move around. Some places will be left with less, while others left with more. This jumbling dispersion of matter is where our debatable cloud-seeding technology fails. The cloud-seeding process is trying to manipulate only what's there, and well, sometimes there isn't a lot in select areas.
This is likely where our settler friends' belief of "rain follows the plow" failed, too. At the worst, it was a false myth. At the most, the dust settlers spewed into the air acted as cloud seeds and created a few years of more-than-average rainfall.
By forming clouds over areas of high volume amounts of dihydrogen monoxide using our applicable knowledge of cloud formation, we can regulate the level of condensation keeping them from raining down. From this, airplanes could transport them to fields where we can make it rain.
Effectively creating a way to transport water (where one cubic meter weighs 2,000 pounds) across vast distances to where it is needed most is how this concept wraps up - a scenario where chemistry beats raw infrastructure.
The future might include calling someone to ship you a cloud from the ocean to water your field when it's too dry.
Not outside the realm of possibility ...