@dnvrite: CU Boulder researchers are the latest Coloradans to try modifying the weather

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters
Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

From Denverite (Andrew Kenney):

A team at CU Boulder is partnering with researchers in Illinois and Indiana to pull snow from the skies — and they’ll only be the latest from Colorado to experiment with the weather. Read on for the details of the new project and the backstory of this state’s ongoing weather modification program.

The research project, launched this month, will put planes over southwest Idaho to seed silver iodide into the clouds, potentially causing snow and ice to form when it wouldn’t otherwise.

This thing has a great name, by the way: SNOWIE, or Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds — the Idaho Experiment. If it works, it would increase the amount of springtime water runoff to streams and rivers, providing more power from hydroelectric dams.

The idea is to build up “the scientific foundation for weather modification,” said assistant professor Katja Friedrich, who’s in charge of the CU part of the program, in a news release.

Among other contributions, two Boulder students will be operating a Doppler radar system on a mountain to track the effects of the experiment. The team also will be operating various gauges and instruments to keep track of the project, joining colleagues from the University of Wyoming and the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

The data, in turn, will be the basis for scientific research by students at CU and elsewhere, and a few lucky undergrads will even get the chance to spend a week at the site.

As of Jan. 10, the experiment had flown three times in four days.

But this isn’t new for Colorado:

The state of Colorado itself has been experimenting with the technology since the 1970s. There’s an entire weather modification program to explore the concept at a cost of about $1 million per year, paid for in part by water providers and ski resorts. Unlike the new research program in Idaho, Colorado uses ground-based “generators” that burn silver iodide up into the air when conditions are just right.

Vail and Beaver Creek have the longest-running effort, which tries to get the resorts open earlier and for a longer season. There are seven active programs in Colorado, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The state claims these programs have showed promise. One research report estimated that 8 percent of the snowpack at Winter Park in one recent season may have been “gained from cloud seeding.”

(The state also has permitted “hail cannons,” which use the power of sound to try to disrupt hail clouds in Weld County and the San Luis Valley.)

Still, it’s quite hard to reliably measure the impact of these programs. Nolan Daesken, the state climatologist, believes they have some effect but that claims about them sometimes are overblown, according to the Colorado Independent.

Silver iodide can only draw out significant snowfall when temperatures are below 17 degrees, “with sufficient moisture in the air and favorable winds,” as Hannah Holm, coordinator for the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, wrote for Vail Daily.

Her conclusion: Cloud-seeding deserves respect as a new water supply strategy, but it’s a relative drop in the bucket.

The January 2017 “Headwaters Pulse” is hot off the presses from @CFWEWater

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Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Across the country, drinking water crises are making the news—from toxic algae to lead poisoning to a growing number of communities facing contamination from a class of manmade chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds or PFCs—raising concerns about whether the nation’s current drinking water regulations do enough to protect us.

While there are clear rules pertaining to 93 federally regulated drinking water contaminants, there are no national drinking water standards for algal cyanotoxins, PFCs, or a host of other potentially harmful unregulated contaminants of emerging concern.

Read this article and more in the recently-released issue of Headwaters magazine, where we explore the connection between public health and water, the regulations in place to keep us safe, and the question of whether those go far enough.

#Snowpack news

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map via the NRCS.

From TheDenverChannel.com (Oscar Contreras):

Back in September, Denver7 First Alert Weather Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson projected Colorado would probably see a La Niña-type winter: A system that favors the northern mountains of Colorado with an abundance of snow.

Nelson predicted that the Denver area could see about 60 inches of snow while Foothill locations could see up to 100 inches of snow through early May.

Whether that ends up happening is still up in the air, but again, the snowfall totals in the mountains point to good prospects…

Colorado’s 2017 “water year” started off slow — really slow, according to National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) officials.

“From the beginning of the water year through November 17th, 2016, statewide Colorado snowpack was off to the worst start in over 25 years at 6% of normal and year-to-date precipitation,” said Brian Domonkos, a snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But things changed quickly after Nov. 17.

“From November 17th, 2016 through January 1st, 2017 snowpack in the mountains grew at the fastest rate dating back to 1986, with an [sic] statewide gain of 7.4 inches of snow water equivalent,” said Domonkos. “That increase is greater than 1997, 2008, and 2011 for the same period in perspective years.”

Domonkos went on to say, “As of January 1st, 2017, Colorado statewide snowpack is a healthy 114% of normal, riding in on the back of a December which saw 171% of normal precipitation.”

From The Summit Daily News (Kevin Fixler):

Arapahoe Basin and Loveland ski areas each reported 11 inches Sunday to Monday, and Breckenridge Ski Resort noted a respectable half-foot as well. Both Copper Mountain and Keystone resorts touted a very healthy 9 inches over that same time. The month of January has been particularly kind to the region’s ski meccas, with Copper receiving 27 inches in just the first nine days of 2017, and Keystone more than 30.

“It has certainly been a snowy winter season at Keystone,” Sara Lococo, spokeswoman for Keystone Resort, said by email. “January is shaping up to be a great snow month as well, as we’re already received 32 inches.”

The 81 inches Keystone — the area peak that typically averages the lowest annual total — reported for December made for the third-snowiest single month in the resort’s history. After a slow start to this year’s ski season, powder hounds could not be happier and serious accumulations appear in the week’s forecast…

More and more snow is great for both the resorts and the local economy, assuming the roads can be maintained to levels that allow the visitors and locals to get around. But it’s the rising reserves from all the falling precipitation in the community that has all the water wonks most excited.

“Oh, they’re huge,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, of the recent snowfalls. “And there’s some reason to be optimistic, because the rest of week is supposed to be wet. Next week we may dry out a little, but into the weekend and looking out into January, the above-average precipitation should continue.”

Kuhn’s organization is a Glenwood Springs-based public water policy agency in charge of maintaining the Colorado River Basin, which provides water to millions and millions of people across multiple western states and Mexico. Strong snowpack years usually result in good summers for water, as commonly measured by what ends up in Lake Powell in northern Arizona before ultimately reaching Mexico’s Gulf of California.

In the meantime, Kuhn and crew monitor daily projections for water runoff produced by the basin forecast center. Current models suggest that if even only average water from the sky in the form of snow descends in the region through the rest the cold season, levels at Lake Powell should reach 7.42 million acre-feet. That’s about 300,000 more than a median year once runoff is officially totaled in July, and there’s a good chance well more than average snow will fall through April and May.

“This current tropical system we have is very wet,” said Kuhn. “It’s a warm, Pacific front that came to California and raised snow levels in the Sierras quite a bit, and they’ll go up a little here, too. After this series of storms, we could be over 8 million acre-feet and well into a strong runoff.”

That total wouldn’t be a record, but it would be the biggest water year since 2010-11, which had significant snow totals here in Summit County. That’s the season Breckenridge Ski Resort, with its average annual total of 353 inches, reported an all-time high with an incredible 520. Copper, with a yearly average of 304, declared a record of its own, with 390 inches.

Should 2016-17 meet or surpass present expectations, that would be four straight average-or-better seasons in what is otherwise considered a relatively dry stretch. Anymore, average water years between 90-110 percent of normal Lake Powell levels are deemed satisfactory for fulfilling the appetite from those western states with rights to the vital resource.

Of course, the snowpack can shift dramatically year to year, and there’s no telling how exactly it will play out this season before the start of May. The ski resorts, and their eager patrons, want only for the snow to keep falling. Following a slightly below-average 2015-16, another record year would be greeted warmly by both, in addition to these devoted water watchers.

“Things can still drop off,” said Kuhn. “We’re in a relatively wet period though, and nobody’s been complaining in Colorado about the ski conditions for a while, or the runoff. It’s looking up, but let’s see what happens in February, March and April — the rest of the snow season.”