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A wall cloud rolls into Fargo on Saturday, June 29, 2019. Meagan Deanne / The Forum

Stormy science: ND project boosted thunderstorm knowledge, sparked cloud seeding myths, experts say

FARGO — Thirty years ago this summer a variety of researchers were brought together for an intensive month-long study of North Dakota's sometimes violent weather.

Known as the North Dakota Thunderstorm Project, the undertaking included professors and students from more than 12 universities who were helped by numerous state and federal agencies as well as private companies.

In some cases, people came from as far away as Greece, Morocco, South Africa and Jordan to participate in the project.

Back then, the person keeping the entire effort on track was Bruce Boe, who today is vice president of meteorology at Weather Modification International in Fargo, formerly known as Weather Modification Inc.

Boe said the term "herding cats" is overused, but he said it aptly describes what it was like coordinating the 1989 effort to learn more about how thunderstorms form.

"That's kind of what it was," Boe said, noting that the effort included six airplanes from various organizations, including an armor-plated, hail-penetration aircraft from the South Dakota School of Mines.

A hurricane hunter aircraft on loan from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also pitched in.

"One of their two (hurricane hunting) aircraft came to North Dakota and flew on our project," Boe said, adding that the hurricane researchers told him the North Dakota storms they encountered were rougher than any hurricane they could imagine.

One "nasty, nasty" storm from late June 1989 still stands out for Boe.

"We all agreed it was rough, even by our standards," he said.

According to Boe, the experiments conducted between mid-June and mid-July of 1989 did much to expand the knowledge of how thunderstorms propagate, particularly when it comes to hail formation.

Science-wise, he said, the most important thing they learned was that the movement of small particles through clouds that raindrops and hailstones form around was more violent and complex than previously understood.

"It may be obvious in retrospect, but at the time we didn't believe that," Boe said, adding that the seeding of clouds aims for two things: a reduction in the percentage and size of hail that reaches the ground and an increase in the percentage of rain that falls from a cloud.

And when it comes to rain, even small enhancements can be meaningful.

"An extra inch of rainfall in western North Dakota can mean the difference between an OK year and a really good year," Boe said.

A controversial subject

Trevor Steeke, a farmer and rancher who is president of the Bowman County Farm Bureau, agreed.

He added, however, that there is not universal agreement among farmers about weather modification.

"It is a very controversial subject out here," Steeke said.

"You can call 10 different people and get five one way and five the other," Steeke said, adding: "Some people are very, very against it."

Steeke said he personally is on the fence on the question of cloud seeding.

Critics of weather modification, he said, tend to be louder during dry spells and more quiet in wetter years.

"This year we've had lots of rains, so this year they're not saying a lot," Steeke said, referring to critics of cloud seeding.

The idea behind cloud seeding goes like this:

For rain, dropping more particles, such as silver iodide, into a storm cloud gives the moisture in the cloud more things to condense around, leading to more water being extracted from the cloud.

With hail, the smaller the number of particles in a cloud, the more water each individual particle will collect, which leads to larger hailstones.

By seeding a cloud with more particles, the moisture is spread around, meaning individual particles will collect less water and therefore less ice, resulting in smaller hailstones that hopefully will melt before hitting the ground.

According to Boe, agriculture isn't the only sector interested in weather modification.

He said in Canada insurance providers have teamed up to pay for hail suppression efforts around metropolitan centers, including places like Calgary, Alberta.

"Up there, you get the big thunderstorms that roll off the Rockies and go really big, really fast," Boe said of Canada.

"It (cloud seeding) is all done in urban areas, because that's where the insurance industry's risk is concentrated. We seed storms that are heading for cities and we let the rest go," Boe said.

John Wheeler, chief meteorologist with WDAY-TV, said a number of myths sprang up as a result of the 1989 thunderstorm project, some of which, he said, persist to this day.

They include a belief among some that cloud seeding in one part of North Dakota can affect rainfall in other parts of the state.

"There was a severe drought the summer of 1989 and a lot of people in eastern North Dakota and central North Dakota were saying that cloud seeding was stealing our rain," Wheeler recalled.

What individuals who say such things don't understand, Wheeler added, is that findings of the 1989 research itself helped show that the materials clouds are seeded with, such as silver iodide, have a very short-lived effect, something on the order of 15 or 20 minutes.

"You're not stealing rain from eastern North Dakota if you are able to get it to rain in western North Dakota; it's simply not happening," Wheeler said.

Boe said he believes the 1989 thunderstorm project left a lasting legacy when it comes to understanding storm dynamics

"I think it hastened the science in a significant way," Boe said.

"We probably would have still got to where we've gotten to, but not as fast," he added.