Reap What You Sow? or Not

Cold Front

The closest most skiers come to influencing the weather is burning their old straight skis during Ullrfest. On the other hand, mountain managers have been tampering directly with Mother Nature for decades, paying professional cloud seeders to squeeze a few extra inches of pow from passing low-pressure systems. It seems folks in the ski biz think seeding is a meteorological marvel-Vail claims its 28-year-old program has increased snowfall 15 percent. But a new report issued by the National Research Council says that cloud seeding produces iffy results at best.

The technology is about as complicated as a baking-soda volcano: set up a few seeders downwind of a ski area, then pump plumes of silver iodide, a dustlike particle, into storm clouds. Water vapor sticks to the particles, forming crystals, and- bam!-you’ve got a powder day. The theory has lined the pockets of cloud seeders for the past 60 years (a typical three-month-long seeding bill runs around $50,000). It’s also caused bad blood: Before the 2002 Olympics, cranky Coloradans circulated e-mails accusing Utah seeders of stealing their snow; Summit County residents have said the same of Vail.

Still, the eggheads at the National Research Council aren’t convinced, and their report makes it clear that cloud seeding needs a lot more study before they’ll give the practice a thumbs-up. Naturally, professional seeders argue otherwise: “The lack of documented research has kept our industry from taking off,” says Larry Hjermsted, founder of Western Weather Consultants, which seeds over Vail, Beaver Creek, Telluride, and Durango Mountain. “We think our effect is in the upper range of a 12 to 25 percent increase in precipitation.”

While the seeding debate drags on, more Western resorts and municipalities are putting seeders on the payroll. In October, Denver signed a deal to boost snow over its watershed (which includes Arapahoe Basin, Keystone, and Breckenridge), and Crested Butte signed a five-year seeding deal in 2002. All told, eight Colorado resorts could be operating under loaded clouds this winter. “For the same amount of money, we can do two nights of snowmaking on four or five acres,” explains Vail COO Bill Jensen. “Or we can cloud seed 5,300 acres for three months.” In Utah, a state-sponsored seeding program covers most resorts.

So, despite the NRC’s study, part of your lift-ticket dough will keep going towards cloud seeding, unless resorts can find a cheaper way to tweak nature. “Mother Earth really listens,” says Suzy “Chapstick” Chaffee, who has paired Native American medicine men with ski hills through her Native Voices Foundation. “I’ve seen spiritual leaders set off snowstorms in Aspen, Telluride, and Kansas.” The cost? “All they typically get is a place to stay and a free season pass.” –