John-Paul Flintoff

Flying into thunderstorms, deliberately

A thrilling way to make rain fall

Two miles from the centre of the storm, the tiny Piper Comanche starts to rattle. The pilot, Tim Pickens, feels it lift suddenly and shoots a glance at his vertical speed indicator. This confirms that the plane has already been caught by “inflow” – that is, sucked into the monstrous weather system advancing rapidly over this corner of south Texas.

We’re flying at 6,500ft, only slightly above the flat base of clouds which get darker and taller every minute. “Look at that one,” says Pickens, pointing up. “That must be 35,000 feet.” On the radio, the voice of another pilot interrupts: “Tim, did you see that lightning bolt? It was right off my left wing.” Pickens, consulting his storm scope, confirms the doomy presence of lightning strikes all round us.

As chief pilot at the South Texas Weather Modification Association (STWMA), Pickens has a highly unusual job: he makes clouds more efficient. He makes them produce more rain, and for a longer period, than they would otherwise; thus relieving pressure on the acquifers which supply precious water to this increasingly populous zone. How does he do it? By flying into storms and letting off the flares mounted on his wings. Each flare is loaded with silver iodide, which has a physical structure like that of ice: as they burn, they release billions of particles, which in turn gather atmospheric moisture – leading to increased rainfall.

Once the plane gets caught by a storm’s inflow, Pickens must point its nose directly to the ground – to stop the wings snapping off – and hold onto his seat while the plane is sucked upwards. It shakes furiously, but Pickens can’t afford to notice that: he must concentrate on setting off the flares, one after another. It can take as long as ten minutes before the storm eventually releases him. “I’ve been sucked in at 3,000 and spit out at 16,000,” he says, before pressing a red button on his dashboard. This lights up a flare on his left wing. At the same time, he mutters coordinates into the microphone on his headset. “Flares away, two-seven-six degrees and thirty-five.”

Back at Pleasanton, the message is received by Picken’s colleague, Todd Flanagan, a meteorologist who watches the progress of the storm on his computer screen, along with the spaghetti-like trail of Pickens’s flight. Flanagan jots down the coordinates, for later use in his report – altogether, STWMA’s pilots released 38 flares, burning 1,920g of silver iodide – then sends out his own radio message to Pickens, who has started flying home. “Tim, just to let you know – they just issued a severe storm warning for that system you were in.”

The chairman of the STMWA is Tommy Shearrer, an elected official and rancher who has long been aware of the water shortage in south Texas. Instead of making hay, as ranchers might hope to do, he has spent many hot summers seeking alternative sources of food for his livestock. With temperatures as high as 105°F, Shearrer would find himself wandering round the ranch with five gallons of propane strapped on his back, burning needles off the prickly pear so that his cattle could eat. Plainly, this was not ideal. So when he heard a talk about cloud seeding, he was immediately converted. “What’s the difference between drilling a well in the ground and drilling up?” He points to the sky, waits for an answer, then says: “The difference is, the atmosphere replenishes itself every day.”

(Not quite every day, as Flanagan cautiously observes. “This is not drought-breaking technology,” he insists. “We can increase the efficiency of clouds, but cloud creation is something else. And in a drought, typically, you don’t have a lot of clouds.”)

Currently, the STWMA delivers rain to 6m acres of land, across ten counties – including the nearest major city, San Antonio, which until recently was looked after by a commercial cloud-seeding firm from Dakota. The operation is impressively low budget, with running costs of just $300,000 a year and 28-year old radar equipment acquired from the National Weather Service. For just $5,000, the STWMA got everything, including the massive white dome pumping out microwaves atop the radar mast. Rotating at 15 different elevations, this generates raw data interpreted by sophisticated modern software to produce three-dimensional images of clouds hundreds of miles away. When Flanagan spies a promising weather system, he notifies Shearrer, who sends up Pickens and the other pilots to burn some flares.

Water is a precious resource. Will Mexico, across the border, start to complain if Texas plunders atmospheric moisture before it gets a chance to drift south? “No, because the people downwind get a benefit,” says Shearrer. “We make the rainfall last longer.” Since weather also travels north, Shearrer would thus be delighted if Mexico started cloud seeding. Elsewhere in Texas, Shearrer reports, cloud seeders are working on hail suppression. The idea is to seed rain before hailstones accumulate too much bulk. “If you want a cheap car, come to San Antonio after a hail storm,” he says. (Hailstones can also destroy crops.)

The sheer size of the area covered makes it difficult to gather accurate rainfall data. “We don’t have a rain gauge network,” says Flanagan. “To have that, you need volunteers to read them. And you need enough gauges, because otherwise the storms could pass between them and not be picked up.” Seeding is believing, as it says on the sign outside his office. To demonstrate the usefulness of this afternoon’s mission, he talks me through some radar images. Over the course of the day, most of the cloud cover has disappeared: the only clouds left are the ones we seeded. And that happens every time, he says. “When I came here for my interview, I was not sure that it worked. After being here for a couple of months, it became clear to me that it does. Somehow, we’re making a difference.”

Since the earliest civilisation, human beings have been fascinated and appalled by weather. The Incas worshipped the sun. The Ancient Greeks credited their most senior god with the production of thunder. The Jews, in Egypt, were aided by hail supplied by a friendly deity. In each case, mankind acknowledged that weather is controllable only by some external agency. Perhaps in future we will worship short-trousered effigies of Tim Pickens – but that’s unlikely, because his powers are strictly limited. He can seed clouds, but he can’t create them. Nor can he get rid of them, whip up hurricanes, or alter the temperature. But if anybody does work out how to do those things, there’s a good chance it will be an American.

As well as pioneering attempts to alter weather, the US has led the world in the business of forecasting, reporting, and compensating for its effects. Consider weather-related financial products, which launched in the mid-90s after the American energy industry was deregulated. Historically, if utilities made a loss because winters were milder than expected, they would pass the cost to consumers; but in a competitive market they can no longer do that. Now, they take options on contracts which are tied to various weather indices. If, say, the temperature is milder than average for a certain number of days in the winter, the other party to the contract pays them compensation.

Since then, weather derivatives have spread to Europe, Japan and India. All kinds of companies could benefit: WeatherXchange, a joint venture between Britain’s Met Office and Umbrella Brokers Ltd, estimates that 70 per cent of British businesses are exposed to some degree of weather risk. At the most predictable: outdoor events generally don’t do well if it’s raining. Less certain, but interesting to life insurers, among others, is the widely held belief that suicide rates rise when the wind is warm and dry.

Then there’s the consumer market: supplying weather porn to the likes of you and me. One of the world’s best-known suppliers is American: the cable TV operator, The Weather Channel. Established 20 years ago, in Atlanta, Georgia, The Weather Channel receives raw data at no charge from the American Weather Service, interprets it through proprietary software, and broadcasts local and national forecasts to more than 80m homes across the US. It also shows weather-related news and documentaries – such as “Storms of the Century”, with original footage and talking heads, which I happen to catch in my Atlanta hotel room – and advertising for, among other things, car insurance, real estate, and a $19.95 “D-weed-R” specially designed for gardners with back problems.

The audience is mixed, according to the channel’s president, Patrick Scott. “We’re equally well represented on any measure: education, income, race, age – whatever.” He divides viewers into three types. First, commodity users who have no pronounced interest in weather. (“In this country, TV is wallpaper. People choose this channel because it’s safe,” says Scott. “There’s nothing dodgy on it. It’s not flashy, it has high integrity.”) The second group are event planners who need to know what conditions will be like but don’t necessarily find weather interesting in itself. Third, people Scott calls “the weather engaged”: individuals who understand and routinely use meteorogical jargon, such as “dew point”, the temperature at which atmospheric moisture becomes precipitation.

Since 1982, The Weather Channel has launched many spin-offs. The European cable networks did not last long, but channels in Spanish and Portuguese continue to thrive across South America. The company also provides weather coverage to an assortment of international newspapers, radio stations and TV programmes (including Channel Four’s breakfast show, RI:SE). Perhaps most impressive is the website, www.weather.com, which averages 350m page views and 14m unique users each month, and has already started to develop interesting ways to deliver weather information to phones and PDAs. Last year, the company launched similar sites for Britain, France and Germany, taking great care to translate for local users. (Into German and French, obviously; but also, for the British, converting American terms such as “vacation” to “holiday”. Where appropriate, temperatures were converted from Fahrenheit to Celsius.) Of the three sites, the most highly developed – searchable by postcode, with UV warnings and pollen forecasts – is the British one. Last month, The Weather Channel sent an unlucky manager, Louis Bucciarelli, from Atlanta to run this from his new home in the forgotten London suburb of Rickmansworth. He will not find it easy to dislodge Britain’s best-established source of online weather information, www.bbc.co.uk/weather.

On the day that I visit The Weather Channel’s squat HQ in Atlanta– amid sunshine, with occasional cloud cover – the mood is downbeat. My trip coincides with the memorial service of John Hope, a veteran broadcaster described by Scott as the Walter Cronkite of weather. Just occasionally, the mood lifts. In the canteen, for instance, I’m delighted to find the various counters are identified by meteorological puns: drinks are served at the “Isobar”, while cooked food can be collected from the “Warm front”. And I can’t help being perked up, while I eat, as I watch the performance of the presenter on a wall-mounted monitor. Even without sound, I find myself magnetised by the confidence with which he sweeps his hands across the various regions of the US. Sure, we’ve all seen much the same performance elsewhere – mostly, in my case, on the BBC – but this guy is different. He forecasts with a conjuror’s pizzazz: as you watch, you expect the American mainland to disappear in a puff of smoke.

Having finished his forecast, the man disappears offscreen – only to reappear in the canteen before me, offering home-made cake to anybody who’ll take it. He wears a baggy pinstriped suit with running shoes, and a surprisingly villainous combination of orange foundation and black-painted eyebrows. This is Mike Seidel, the holder of a masters degree in meteorology who joined the channel ten years ago.

Following Seidel into the basement studios, I ask him if meteorologists need to be good looking to get on TV. He replies cautiously: “You do need to have at least average looks.” His fellow presenter, Jeff Morrow, sitting nearby, is unable to restrain himself: “So how did you get in?” Seidel, in turn, responds with a gag about people who have “a face for radio”. Alas, Morrow is unable to fire back. He points at the clock, says, “Hey, we have to be sombre for this,” and at once adopts the appropriate tone to announce to viewers, over a picture of the late John Hope – for what seems like the hundredth time – that today is a sad day for the Weather Channel.

While they’re busy, I wander over to talk to Dr Steve Lyons, an extreme weather expert; he sits patiently at his desk waiting to be called upon at hourly intervals, like a man selling ice creams on a rainy day at the seaside. We talk about his speciality, hurricanes, and how they get their names. Each year, says Lyons, the World Meteorological Organisation, in Geneva, issues an alphabetical list of names, alternately male and female. When a hurricane appears, it takes the first available name. Many don’t reach land, so you never hear about them. If they do, and if they inflict particularly severe damage, the WMO may permanently retire that name, as it did after Hugo in 1989 and Andrew in 1992.

Inevitably, presenters – like viewers – get more excited about extreme weather than boring old sunshine. “I have experienced just about everything,” says Seidel, who believes there is no more interesting place on earth to be a meteorologist than the US. “I’ve seen just about every kind of weather, apart from a Force 5 tornado. I’ve seen golf ball-sized hailstones. In Buffalo, once, I saw seven feet of snow fall in five days.” The worst time of year is October, when little happens. “You can have days when it’s not even raining anywhere,” says Morrow. “But this place really gears up when a hurricane hits land.” And when is that, typically? “September 10th,” says Seidel with startling precision.

If weather follows such predictable patterns, why not run the weather on a loop? Repeat last year’s output? Because, says Morrow, there’s always something unpredictable. Viewers watch weather for the same reason they watch sports: because the outcome is uncertain. “Some people root for stormy weather,” he adds. The Weather Channel can’t afford to do that. “We have to be careful to come across as caring. You can’t go, ‘Cool storm!’ I have seen the devastation, and it’s no laughing matter.”

And so it turns out in San Antonio, just a fortnight after I went cloud seeding. In a few days, as much as 100cm of rain falls over 29 counties in southern and central Texas. Hundreds of homes are damaged or destroyed; several people killed. After inspecting conditions from a helicopter, governor Rick Perry requests federal assistance from President George Bush. Early estimates indicate damage amounting to several hundred millions of dollars. I can’t help wondering – as I follow the story on the internet – whether the floods had been caused by the guys at the South Texas Weather Modification Association. Could Shearrer and his team have engineered such copious rainfall? Consulting my notes, I remember him alluding darkly to “naysayers… people who think this is voodoo”. And Flanagan told me that when the STWMA was first set up, “We decided that whenever the Weather Service issued a severe weather warning we would not seed it, in case somebody who suffered damage might have blamed us. But we were missing a lot of opportunities, because the Weather Service issued a lot of severe weather warnings…” Have they changed that policy?

I send emails, leave phone messages. Eventually, Flanagan gets back to me. His reply is thorough, crammed with information about slow-moving lows, weak wind fields and moisture streaming in off the Gulf of Mexico. It seems to prove that cloud seeding did not cause the disaster. What’s more, Pickens will not fly again till the flood has subsided. “At this point it would be useless to do seeding as any more rain would just run off instead of going into the ground. We have halted operations so that places can dry out.”

2703 words. First published 4 June 02. © Wallpaper*

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