Doubts spin around success of cloud seeding

Western Kansas cloud-seeders think they took the steam out of a twister Friday afternoon, but NOAA officials doubt it.

By Mike Berry

The Wichita Eagle

Curt Smith thinks his pilots put a choke hold on a tornado Friday and may have made meteorological history in the process. But officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are skeptical of his interpretation.

Nine planes from the Western Kansas Weather Modification Progam poured cloud-seeding agents into a developing thunderstorm supercell system, starting about 3:20 p.m. Friday in northeast Haskell County. The system showed all the signs of producing a tomado.

The storm eventually produced the telltale "hook echo" of a tornado on radar and spawned a weak twister, but it only kicked up a bit of dust on the ground before fizzling out, said Smith, manager of the weather project headquartered in Lakin.

Smith said the planes were sent up to try to suppress hail from the storm.

"The ultimate effect was that the tornado development appeared to be diminished or nearly nonexistent," he said Monday. "I think I'm going to catch a lot of flak for what I've said."

Smith said he was not trying to oversell the effectiveness of weather modification, but now may be the time to get serious about studying tornado mitigation, as proposed by President Clinton after the disastrous Oklahoma City and Haysville tornadoes last morrth.

"The implications are enormous... . What if many other tornadoes produced by severe storms really can be seeded to reduce their force or mitigate them outright?" he said.

A similar storm, system Friday in the Oklahoma panhandle produced two tornadoes. Officials at the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., said no one was hurt and no major property damage resulted from those tornadoes, which touched down in open, rural areas.

Charles Doswell, a research scientist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, said the Westem Kansas Weather Modification Program's claim of taming a twister is just that - a claim that can't be substantiated.

"These sorts of claims have been made before," Doswell said. "To say the difference between the two (Friday night storm systems) is due to their seeding is scientific nonsense."

He said the only way to scientifically prove whether cloud seeding affects tomadoes is to do a double-blind study involving dozens or hundreds of stomms. Neither the cloud-seeders nor those who interpret their results would know which storms were seeded and which had only dummy seeding elements dropped into them.

The federal government signed off on funding weather modification programs more than a dozen years ago, and there are no plans to begin such tornado-seeding research, Doswell said.