A small investment in a method of increasing rainfall and reducing hail in a number of western North Dakota counties has made for a large benefit economically to the region.
This conclusion can be drawn from the results of a recent study released by economists at North Dakota State University. The study was conducted to learn the benefits of what is known as the North Dakota Cloud Modification Project.
Workers who conduct the cloud modification project do what is known as cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is when particles are introduced into clouds to aid in the formation of precipitation.
The purpose of cloud seeding is to increase the amount of precipitation while reducing the risk of hail. This is done to attempt to improve agricultural production.
Darin Langerud is the director of the N.D. Atmospheric Resource Board in Bismarck. The board oversees the cloud modification project. Langerud said the study proves the economic impact goes far beyond the money budgeted for the project.
He said the impacts of the cloud seeding are calculated based on having a reduction in hail and increases in precipitation of five to 10 percent.
"The study found, based on numbers from the top eight crops by acreage that the crop output saved from hail suppression is about $3.7 million per year.
The value of increased crop production from between the five to ten percent ranges from $8.4 million to $16 million," said Langerud.
He said adding the $3.7 million to the increased crop production makes for an annual direct economic impact of roughly $12 million to $19.7 million.
Langerud said the amount of money put into cloud seeding each year is small compared to the economic output.
"The budget we passed with the counties is $768,000," said Langerud.
He said based on 2009 costs, the amount of money put into cloud seeding makes for a $16 to $26 return on each dollar invested.
Williams County is one of four counties in District Two, in northwest North Dakota, that are involved in the program. The others are McKenzie, Mountrail and Ward counties.
To the south, District One consists of Bowman County and part of Slope County.
Langerud said they have between 30 and 35 people who are involved in the project. They have a total of eight airplanes.
"Through August 24, the six airplanes in District Two had logged 143 flights, which include seeding seeding flights for hail suppression and rain enhancement, and reconnaissance," said Langerud.
He said the number of flights and amount of material used depends on the weather. The process of cloud seeding is mainly conducted during thunderstorms.
"All of our pilots are on call 24 hours a day. They'll conduct operations whenever there's activity," said Langerud.
Langerud said there are two kinds of materials they use to seed clouds in the region, dry ice and silver iodide.
"As of August 14 we had used 2,072 pounds of dry ice and used 182 pounds of silver iodide," said Langerud.
Materials used for cloud seeding are dispersed into clouds as a source for increasing condensation, producing more rain droplets.
According to Langerud, the process has been used in North Dakota for decades.
He said Bowman County used cloud seeding as far back as 1951.
Other counties such as Williams County, he said, have done so for nearly as long.
The process is not without controversy, said Langerud. He said opponents of cloud seeding claim that it could have environmental impacts due to the use of silver iodide and that science shouldn't interfere with nature. Langerud said he disagrees with those sentiments.
"None of the studies conducted have ever shown a significant negative environmental impact," said Langerud. He added that it takes a very small amount of silver iodide to produce more rain and its impact is very little.
Langerud said overall they make sure they follow guidelines they've developed to in order to use a proper amount of material for the most benefits as well as avoid any potential environmental impact.
He said on the local level they usually deal with county officials, usually a small board of five who deal with the cloud seeding issue in their counties.
"We work through them to achieve their wants and needs," said Langerud.
The Atmospheric Resource Board consists of seven members appointed by the governor as well as three ex-officio members.
They are the agency in charge of the cloud modification project.
For more information on the cloud modification project and the Atmospheric Resource Board visit www.swc.nd.gov/arb.