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For the first time, researchers have used radar and other tools to accurately measure the volume of snow produced through cloud seeding.
Led by University of Colorado Boulder atmospheric scientist Katja Friedrich and her colleagues, the research began on a chilly day in January 2017. That's when the team watched as a flurry settled over a patch of land in western Idaho.
"We tracked the seeding plume from the time we put it into the cloud until it generated snow that actually fell onto the ground," said Friedrich.
In all, that cloud seeding event and two more later that month produced a total of about 282 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water. The group reported its findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
On Jan. 19, that little bit of additional snow kicked off with an airplane flight. Just before sunset, a plane owned by Idaho Power Company used a series of flares to inject particles of silver iodide into a natural cloud formation that was passing overhead.
On that January day, however, she and her colleagues had a plan. The group used a nearby radar dish to peer into the clouds as the water inside thickened and eventually succumbed to gravity.
The idea behind such cloud seeding is a simple one—to turn lightweight water vapor into heavy droplets. "If everything goes according to plan, the water droplets will begin to freeze around the aerosols, forming snow," Friedrich said.
Based on the team's calculations, snow fell from those clouds for about 67 minutes, dusting roughly 900 square miles of land in about a tenth of a millimeter of snow.
In 2019, Colorado entered into a partnership with six others that border the Colorado River to step up its efforts at cloud seeding—an attempt to increase the supply of water to that valuable waterway.
Friedrich added that, for now, she can't say how useful cloud seeding might be for such efforts moving forward—every winter storm is different and interacts with aerosols in different ways. But the group's findings could get scientists closer to being able to make those cost-benefit calculations.
"We can now finally put a number on how much water we can produce through cloud seeding," Friedrich said.
Extreme exposure can lead to argyria, characterized by localized discoloration of body tissue.