Willoughby: Aspen’s dubious history of cloud seeding
Legends & Legacies
Pitkin County commissioners are debating cloud-seeding. This plot hatches anew, every few decades. A scheme to inject vaporized silver iodide into the clouds would surely increase snowfall, a quick fix to alter nature’s gift to Aspen. The harebrained idea always attracts my attention because of a personal experience during the 1960s.
Cloud-seeding experiments in the Aspen area go all the way back to the low snow year 1959. In 1960, members of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce contributed funds for the experiment. Their largesse triggered talk about whether the consequential change in weather may impact health and environment.
In 1962, the Water Resources Development Corp. asked Aspen to chip in $3,000 to set up snowmaking devices along the western border of Colorado. Contributors included 100 locals, as well as Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk Mountain and five other Colorado ski areas, along with farming groups. Dr. Irving Krick, a well-known weather forecaster, headed the project. Krick had been involved in forecasting weather for the Normandy landing as well as for several presidential inaugurations.
I remember the 1962 cloud-seeding debate because Frank Bosco, a classmate of my uncle Frank Willoughby from their days at the Colorado School of Mines, paid us a visit. Bosco held a patent for inducing rainfall. He explained why the Krick proposal would help Aspen’s snowfall. My uncle, an expert in both silver mining and Aspen’s snow, did not know much about silver iodide. Some years at the Midnight mine, he would have liked much less snow. Years when he and others worked to make Aspen the best-known ski area, he would have liked more of the magical moneymaking flakes. I do not remember his being too impressed by Bosco’s ideas.
Skepticism held sway with others, as well. Aspen Times writer Mary Hayes referred to Dr. Krick as an “alleged weather improver and local bone of contention.” Frequently, letter writers blasted the idea. Freddie Fisher labeled the maneuver “pollination” and compared it to artificial insemination. D.R.C. Brown, president of the Aspen Ski Corp., did not contribute to the cause. He noted that during years when clouds had been seeded, snowfall at his Carbondale ranch exceeded that of Aspen, the reverse of normal patterns. He concluded, “I for one would be more inclined to place my faith in the services of Indian medicine men than I would in those of Dr. Krick.”
Around that time Colorado ski mountain owners had hired him to be their weather forecaster. While seeding took place, Dr. Krick gave a talk at the Jerome. Not much snow had fallen, and Krick explained that high pressure had dominated the weather pattern. That high pressure, he said, had been altered by the ozone distribution that had been altered by a nuclear blast. He also said that adding silver iodide to clouds “affected about 2 percent of the moisture within a cloud.” Not convincing words for those who had paid money in hopes of immediate snowfall.
Machines seeded clouds at the Colorado border. The project covered so much territory it was hard to determine whether it contributed to Aspen’s snow depth that year. The next winter, Aspen and other state ski areas pulled out of the deal due to a Colorado State University experiment. Krick’s snow machines would have altered the CSU study. A few years later, well-intentioned folk began to seed clouds from airplanes. Back then, chemtrail conspiracy theorists had not yet raised public suspicions.
In the absence of snowmaking machines, Aspen’s annual angst over whether the weather would produce enough snow for Thanksgiving and even for Christmas demanded a solution. With so much at stake, businesses grasped at any promise. The 5 percent additional snow may have measured up for winter water storage. But that paltry puffery left expectant powder hounds high and dry.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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International visitors have traditionally accounted for 10 to 20 percent of Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits in recent past seasons. Travel fears and restrictions tied to the coronavirus are expected to wipe out most of that market for 2020-21.