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Skico declines to seed clouds

Brent Gardner-Smith

As a small storm front rolled last Tuesday afternoon, Vail Resorts cranked up five of its 14 cloud-seeding machines. The Aspen Skiing Co., which doesn’t subscribe to the concept of cloud seeding, didn’t go beyond praying for snow.But on Wednesday morning, the Skico reported that its ski areas received one inch of snow, while Vail Resorts reported that Vail Mountain had three new inches.Was Vail’s cloud seeding worth two more inches of snow?No one knows for sure, but cloud-seeding operations, in place this winter not only at Vail, but also Beaver Creek, Telluride and Durango (nee Purgatory), are gaining in popularity with both ski resorts and water conservancy districts, which know that more snow means more irrigation water in the spring.”It’s somewhat of a leap of faith,” said Joe Macy, manager of governmental affairs for Vail Resorts. He oversees the resort’s $130,000 annual investment in cloud seeding. “And we’ve been doing it here for 23 years.”It would take expensive research for Vail Resorts to truly know if its efforts are effective, so it just focuses on the operational side of the program.”There is so much evidence of the technology working all over the world that we would rather spend the money on operations,” said Macy, who frequently attends meetings of the Weather Modification Association. The association studies cloud-seeding programs around the world, the majority of which are agriculturally-related.Skico officials took the cloud-seeding leap from 1990 to 1994, but since then, they’ve let the snow gods work on their own.”The results from the cloud seeding were inconclusive,” said Mike Kaplan, vice president of mountain operations for the Skico. “If you talk with Hal Hartman, he’ll tell you it may have helped a little bit with some storms, with those ones coming out of the north, but it’s a tough thing to measure and quantify.”Hartman is the company’s main snow scientist and its chief avalanche-control technician at Snowmass Ski Area.Will the Skico ever embrace cloud seeding?”We’re going to keep looking at it,” said Kaplan. “We’ll keep talking.”In Telluride, resort officials say that last year, their cloud-seeding operations resulted in a snowpack with 25 percent more water content on their ski area than on adjacent peaks.”So far, it seems to be working,” said Kristin Hoines, communications manager with the Telluride Ski & Golf Co.Telluride is in the fourth year of a five-year “weather modification permit,” and the resort splits the annual $52,000 cost of the program with the Southwestern Water Conservation District. The district also splits the cost of a separate $42,000 program with the Durango Mountain Resort, home of the Purgatory ski area.To the west of Aspen, cloud seeding is also taking place. A group of water districts operates a cloud-seeding program designed to increase the snowpack on the Grand Mesa, which rises just to the southeast of Grand Junction.”We have a feeling that it helps,” said Bud Bradbury, who is on the board of the Grand Mesa Reservoir Pool. “It’s hard to prove, but it makes sense to me.”The ski areas in the state all work with the same cloud-seeding consultant, Larry Hjermstad of Western Water Consultants out of Durango. And when it comes to the effectiveness of cloud seeding, Hjermstad explains that Aspen is, as usual, a bit more difficult than other areas.”Aspen has a much narrower ideal window of opportunity as far as really good seeding,” Hjermstad said. “A lot of your weather comes from the southwest, and the storms have a ton of mountains to get over. It’s only when you get into storms from the north/northwest that you get a lot of moisture.”Cloud-seeding works by setting up a series of propane-fired generators in roughly a 10-mile radius from the intended target. Then, powdery silver iodide, made from combining silver nitrate and sodium iodide, is mixed with acetone (similar to paint thinner) and injected from a paint sprayer into a propane flame.The silver iodide gets crystallized by the flame and then rises with the wind up to the bottom of passing clouds. There, water collects on the iodide crystals and, if it’s cold enough, falls to the earth in the form of big wet flakes, or so the premise goes.Hjermstad tracks weather systems as they make their way through the state and then advises the ski resorts on when to fire up the generating stations. Vail’s network of cloud-seeding generators is spread out around the resort. One is located 12 miles southwest of Gypsum, just over the ridge from Basalt.With cloud-seeding happening near the Grand Mesa and just over the ridge near Vail, it’s enough to make any powder hound wonder if maybe Aspen’s snow is falling on someone else’s mountain. Or, for the optimistic, maybe the area is getting a bonus amount of snow from stray cloud seeds.According to Hjermstad, Aspen is probably not being harmed from anyone else’s efforts and is also not getting any benefit either.”There may be some aspect of minute influence, and I don’t know whether it would be positive or negative, to tell you the truth,” said Hjermstad.Most storms drop about 3-4 percent of their moisture as they pass, and cloud-seeding might bump that up to 3.3 percent, but as Hjermstad puts it, “you do not wring the clouds dry, by far.”So a storm coming from the west might drop more snow on the Grand Mesa than it would otherwise, but there would still be moisture in the system by the time it made it over McClure Pass and into the Roaring Fork Valley. And it’s hard to blame Vail for anything, as few storms roll in from the east.And conversely, if there is still some iodide left in any seeded clouds, it might snow a bit more in Aspen. But don’t bet the cloud farm on it.


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