There is perhaps nothing more in our lives that defines us as much as weather. It defines what we eat and when we eat it. It determines how we choose our shelter and where and when and how we play. And, perhaps more than anything else, it gives us something to talk about. The weather comes in handy. Coast to coast, year after year, weather is what we talk about when there’s nothing else to say.
It didn’t always used to be that way, though. As recent as a few hundred years ago, when we talked about weather, it often meant trouble for those who led us.
When we asked, “Why isn’t it raining?” or “Why does it rain so much?” that meant that we, the natives, were getting restless. And that our leaders, with their direct lines to our gods, had some explaining to do. If they couldn’t convince us that the gods were punishing us for whatever it was we did, our leaders could either appease the gods by offering up fresh batches of virgins for sacrifice, or retaliate by punishing the gods by denying them fresh batches of virgin sacrifices. It didn’t matter which method worked because, in the end, they all did. Virgins or no virgins, the rains fell or finally stopped, and we went back to talking about something else.
And ever since then, it’s been the same old story. The gods said, “Let there be light,” and we took to the shade. When it rained and snowed, we dreamt up umbrellas and mittens. Where it was hot and sunny, we fashioned sunglasses and sandals and wide-brimmed hats.
Almost as long as we have been talking about the weather, we have been talking about trying to control it.
Rain on Your Parade
In May of 2003, then-Russian president Vladimir Putin was putting the finishing touches on a very special day. Three hundred years earlier, Russia’s first modernist czar, Peter the Great, built what became the Russian empire’s capital city, and the home to its financial and cultural enterprises, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, which he dubbed, after his patron saint, St. Petersburg. To celebrate this very important city on a very important day, Putin invited foreign leaders and dignitaries from around the world. Tours were arranged to show off the city’s numerous restaurants and its thriving art scene, with free outdoor musical concerts capping off every night of the celebration. There was only one hitch. Rain was expected.
So far, Putin had micromanaged every detail of the event, and that did not stop him from trying to stop the rain from falling. So, before his guests could deplane, Putin sent his pilots to the skies. Under his orders, pilots of the Russian Air Force zigged, zagged and maneuvered through the storm clouds, temporarily displacing them, until at last the sun shone down benevolently on the city. He had, for the moment, defeated nature, but it was not to last. Shortly after the deplaning, the clouds soon gathered back together and when the rains began to fall, the distinguished guests walked the city’s crowded avenues and plazas hunched beneath their umbrellas. Nature rarely makes exceptions for milestones and celebrations, and that day, the rain fell down upon Putin’s parade.
Photograph: Kevin Syms
What Putin’s pilots were trying to achieve is similar to a little-known but oft-rumored weather altering technique known as cloud seeding.
As everyone who has ever visited Sun Valley in the winter knows: Sun Valley gets a lot of snow. They also know that Sun Valley makes some of that snow.
Right now, the mountains are sprayed with manmade snow from guns lining the ski runs, the first of which was built for the lower Warm Springs run for the 1974-1975 season. What they may not know is that, even while gunning the runs with snow, Sun Valley tried for a brief spell to seed the clouds, as well.
Few materials are needed to seed a cloud. All one needs to do is introduce a crystalizing agent like dry ice or silver iodide to naturally occurring water in a storm cloud. The only trick is, the water in the cloud must naturally occur at a super-cooled temperature. (Water is said to be super-cooled when it is chilled to a temperature below its own freezing temperature, but without freezing). When pellets of dry ice or silver iodide are scattered into a storm cloud, by plane, it undergoes a chain reaction, and the cloud releases its grip on the rain or snow it had been storing.
A seeded cloud will drop its rain, or, depending on the temperature, its snow. We know that much is certain. But here’s the rub: those storm clouds are going to rain or snow, anyway, seeded or not. It’s not a matter of what, or how much of what, but simply a matter of when.
There’s also another catch. It’s not just dangerous, but it can be very, very dangerous.
Peter Stearns is the Sun Valley Company’s assistant mountain manager, and describes the dangers the pilots who seeded the clouds over Bald Mountain faced when the resort started the program in the early 1980s.
“They had to fly, by plane, in close proximity to the mountain in terrible weather. It seems insanely dangerous, to me, because you need a storm to fly in,” Stearns says.
“First, the clouds need to have moisture in them,” he says. “Then, (the pilots) had to monitor the weather and target clouds in the right geographic location.”
That meant clouds with enough moisture, which were likewise destined to pass over the resort’s favored runs. Pilots then took to the clouds and seeded them (Sun Valley favored silver iodide then). It worked, but the seeding process was nevertheless reevaluated.
With the beginnings of a snowmaking system in place (the guns on lower Warm Springs and, by this time, middle Warm Springs and Flying Squirrel), investing in a redundant and dangerous snowmaking system seemed to make less and less sense.
So, Sun Valley went to the snow guns full-time, this time with immediate and measurable results. And while the process is different, the chemistry is still the same. In this case, compressed air and water, from nearby surface waters and from the Valley’s reservoir of underground wells, are brought, in separate lines, to each snow gun on each ski run. Once the water and air arrive, they are mixed in each gun’s internal chamber, where the water molecules are super-cooled before they are shot from the gun’s barrels down onto the mountainscape.
In this way, the Sun Valley Company augments the winter’s natural snowfall by spraying Baldy with manmade snow. Stearns says the guns are usually fired up just prior to Halloween to create a snow base from “production snow” before the winter settles in which, as everyone in the mountains knows, can be anytime (remember when snow fell on the Valley’s Fourth of July parade?). At first, the snow is made at night, but activities are ramped up to 24-hour-a-day operations just before the winter holidays.
“The system will run as often as possible throughout the time period of November and December in order to be ready with as much terrain as possible for the Christmas holiday,” Stearns says. “At that time, the quality of the snow created is improved in order to enhance the product surface to a drier snow.”
The guns will then run throughout the season, when necessary, Stearns says, such as when warm spells or even rain are forecast. This, he says, helps keep the runs free from “thin spots,” and thus, skiers safe to enjoy the mountain.
When the ski season does end, Stearns says the water used in the snowmaking process eventually melts and returns safely to an underground system from which they were drawn, to be drawn again in another six months for the start of the next winter season.
But just when it seems nature and manmade technology were, if not in perfect harmony, at least in agreement, a different kind of storm comes to play a different kind of role.
All it took was one storm cloud to shoot, with the right barometric conditions, one lightning bolt, followed by the applause of a few grumbling thunderclaps and—voilá—a forest fire is born.
Another Parade upon which it Rained
Those wandering the streets of downtown Ketchum the evening of August 19, 2007, knew something was in the air, because there was: namely, the smell of trees burning. But they wouldn’t know until the next day just how close it was. A few days after that, what was soon named the Castle Rock Fire began moving, slowly at first, and then very quickly, toward downtown Ketchum and Bald Mountain. Over the next three weeks, thousands of people were evacuated from their homes as firefighters from across the country fought back the fire. But just when it seemed everything was very nearly under control, off went the indecisive wind in another direction, with the fire fast following it.
At times, Bald Mountain was seemingly surrounded by the flames, and at one point, the fire crept up the south side of the mountain, threatening the resort’s infrastructure of ski runs.
But, in a way, the Sun Valley Company was able to come to its own rescue. With the infrastructure for the snow guns already in place, all the company needed to do was start them up a couple of months early.
Stearns says the company and the firefighters pumped water up the mountain, where it was collected and used for “dip stations” from where helicopters would load up with water, which was in turn dumped across the terrain. Water was also pumped out to assist in setting back-burn lines to stop the fire from advancing up or down certain parts of the mountain. Finally, the guns were used in the way they were intended: without the compressed air, Stearns says, water was “broadcast” from them, which helped saturate the mountainside.
The mere presence of readily available water helped change the conditions, too, he says. “It saturated some of the fuel, which in turn created a bunch of humidity,” Sterns says. “It was a good tool,” since fires tend to slow under humid conditions.
At the end of it all, more than 48,500 acres of forest and land surrounding the Valley community burned up, and, once more, another parade was rained on, so to speak (the city of Ketchum’s Wagon Days festival was cancelled). But no homes were lost and, for the most part, everyone suffered only from the symptoms of a lackadaisical torpor, a languid state of being they were able to shake off once the first rains fell.
Within a couple of months, Sun Valley was back to work making snow to open up the mountain for the 2007-2008 winter season, their 72nd, making enough to stretch the ski season all the way into late-April, a boon not only to the company, but to the local retailers and ski bum-lifers who round out the community.
All without sacrificing one virgin.
Above Photograph: Ben Flandro
Chad Walsh is a freelance writer living in Portland.