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Dave Olson, Published January 11 2010

Film addresses climate change, weather modification

A new documentary that explores to what extent humans can or ought to control the Earth’s weather and climate shines a cameo light on a Fargo-based company that is a world leader in cloud seeding.

The film, “Owning the Weather,” was screened during the recent climate summit held in Copenhagen.

Filmmaker Robert Greene, a New Yorker, said he hopes the movie will advance discussion on climate change and weather modification “so the debate is less knee-jerk and less reactionary.”

In making the movie, which is available on Amazon.com and through Netflix, Greene said he learned a lot about the science of cloud seeding and that there are communities in the United States that consider rain-making essential to their survival.

“When I met people in Texas and Colorado and then people from Weather Modification Inc. – which is based out of Fargo – I saw their motivations and what they were trying to do. I wanted to tell their stories,” Greene said.

From a scientific standpoint, cloud seeding can promote precipitation, but measuring its effectiveness in real-world situations is difficult, Greene said.

“You can’t ever completely prove whatever you’re doing with cloud seeding actually has the effect you’re saying it had. It’s the weather and it’s chaotic,” Greene said.

The inability to measure or predict outcomes raises troubling questions when it comes to potentially bad results, like storms that produce damage or injuries, Greene said.

He said another worry is the possibility that attempts to alter temperatures on a global scale, a concept known as geoengineering, could have unforeseen and devastating effects.

Bruce Boe, director of meteorology for Weather Modification Inc., said he was talked to for the movie, but he has not seen the film.

Boe said human actions can have negative consequences for weather. But he said when it comes to cloud seeding, steps can be taken to prevent or limit the negatives.

“Our company, for decades, has engaged in what we call suspension criteria,” Boe said.

“If we get to a point where we think excessive rain could result from seeding, we stop before it ever happens,” he said.

Boe said a controlled approach to cloud seeding can counter negative effects human activity has on the weather.

The more science digs into what happens inside clouds, the more it becomes clear that particles placed in the air by human agriculture and industry can hamper the ability of clouds to produce rain and snow, according to Boe.

Cloud seeding, he said, “can actually offset some of these changes.”

Greene said if it’s ever proven that humans can substantially change the weather or climate, it raises numerous questions.

“One of the reasons why you cloud seed is to give more water to more population,” Greene said, referring to the population boom in the western United States.

“The question is,” he added, “is this a place where people are supposed to be filling in as rapidly as they are? Places like Las Vegas?”

Also, he said, if geoengineering is ever attempted on a large scale, one issue becomes: Who sets the thermostat?

“There’s a guy in the movie that says everybody would be happy if it was constantly 72 degrees. I think that is so wrong,” Greene said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555