Maharashtra is one of the largest and wealthiest of India’s 30 states, with 110 million residents. It encompasses Mumbai and other large cities, plus vast swaths of farmland. Like other agricultural regions of India, it’s in its third consecutive year of drought. More than 80 percent of its farms depend on rain for irrigation, and agriculture production has dropped by almost a third since 2013. The human impact has been severe—1,300 debt-trapped farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra in just the past six months.In July, 2015 the state’s minister of revenue, Eknath Khadse, took a gamble: He hired Koliwad to carry out a $4.5 million cloud-seeding program over three months and across 100 square miles in the middle of the state, the largest campaign of this kind ever attempted in India.
So Koliwad called Weather Modification Inc., the world’s largest private aerial cloud-seeding company, based in Fargo, N.D. WMI’s chief executive, Patrick Sweeney, developed a five-year technology transfer program with Koliwad that’s now in its first year. Pederson and other WMI staff are training Indian pilots, meteorologists, and Doppler radar technicians to seed clouds.
Sweeney has seeded clouds all over the world for more than 20 years, but the Maharashtra project is unique in that the circumstances are so dire. “The hardest part is managing expectations,” he says. “People in Maharashtra are hoping for a cure-all to drought. They come out and dance in the streets when it rains, they hug our pilots and say, ‘Do it again.’ But we can’t guarantee that the clouds will be there—and willing to cooperate.”..
Despite the uncertainty, the industry is on the rise. According to the World Meteorological Organization, more than 52 countries have active cloud-seeding operations—up from 42 four years ago. In the U.S. last year, 55 cloud-seeding projects were reported to NOAA. There’s even a luxury cloud-seeding market emerging—one European company, for instance, charges a minimum of $150,000 to guarantee good wedding weather by forcing clouds to rain in the days before the event….
Sweeney also built ICE (Ice Crystal Engineering), a company that makes cloud-seeding chemicals and supplies flares to 25 countries. ICE adds a decent sidestream of income for Sweeney, with revenue of about $3 million a year. But the bigger advantage is that it helped WMI become the only aerial seeding company that “does a full turnkey,” says Neil Brackin, WMI’s president—meaning it customizes and operates the planes and radars, manufactures the flares, and flies the missions.
They do have competitors. There are 34 private companies worldwide that do weather modification, but there’s no bigger rival in aerial cloud seeding than the Chinese government, which spends hundreds of millions a year seeding clouds in 22 of its 23 provinces, both to clear pollution above cities and to enhance rainfall for farming. China has yet to allow private companies to enter its market, but Sweeney is making inroads; he sold his first cloud-seeding plane to Beijing last year.
Thailand’s government has a Bureau of Royal Rainmaking, with hundreds of employees that WMI helped train, though the program’s still using old technology—releasing mounds of table salt from trap doors in the bellies of its planes. And when the Argentine government took over the cloud-seeding program WMI built for the country, it cut costs. Soon after, two pilots died seeding clouds above a mountain, and the project was suspended…
Brackin adds that while scientists want to achieve a 99.99 percent probability that a technology consistently works, the industry doesn’t need that kind of certainty or consistency to succeed. He likens cloud seeding to a cutting-edge medication that’s still in development: “If you’re dealing with a serious ailment and you were offered a medicine that had a 60 percent chance of working, or even 20 percent, would you take it? You probably would.”
Excerpts from Amanda Little, Weather on Demand: Making It Rain Is Now a Global Business, Bloomberg, Oct. 28, 2015