Hemera/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Craig Funke’s job is to fly a small plane to the edge of violent thunderstorms and back.
The former commercial pilot is not some adrenaline junkie courting danger. He is a cloud seeder in Pleasanton, Texas, chasing menacing storms to artificially prime the clouds to deliver extra rain over drought-stricken farmland.
“As a pilot through school you’re taught to avoid thunderstorms, give them a 20 to 30-mile berth,” Funke said. “You have to respect them, because they are dangerous, but with the proper training, you can negotiate them safely and do this job.”
Funke’s job entails firing chemicals into clouds in an ambitious attempt to modify the weather. He is, quite literally, a rain maker.
Texas is suffering from the largest drought in a half century, causing rising food prices and record wildfires. The drought is also suspected to be the cause for the recent surge in cases of West Nile virus.
Funke said cloud seeding can’t break droughts, but farmers are getting desperate for solutions because they have endured four months of drought. Local water districts that manage the aquifers pay $0.04 an acre to keep Funke and his team up and running on a shoe-string budget.
Tommy Shearrer, the president of the Texas Weather Modification Association, which operates five cloud seeding programs around the state, was quick to explain that cloud seeding only enhances conditions in the atmosphere to produce more rain, but does not create weather.
“We don’t manufacture clouds, and that’s what gets me into trouble with a lot of folks who go, ‘well, it was going to rain anyway, how do you know it was going to have any effect?’” he said. “If you look at the cloud as a factory, we’re inducing a lot of raw materials into the factory so that the factory becomes more efficient and consequently more productive.”
Shearrer’s team of pilots and meteorologists are constantly scanning the skies for the right clouds to seed, but in the middle of a heavy drought, opportunities are few and far between. Sometimes several bone dry days will go by before a promising thunderstorm appears.
When a thunderstorm approaches, a meteorologist guides the cloud-seeding pilot. “Nightline” flew with Funke in a separate chase plane to watch the cloud-seeding pilot hunt for what they called the “inflow.”
The inflow is essentially the lifeline of the storm, where a cloud sucks in moisture in order to produce rain. Once the pilot gets into the optimum position in the cloud, he waits for the green light from headquarters on the ground to start seeding. After an OK over the radio, the pilot releases flares containing silver iodide and calcium chloride particles, which collide with water particles and help produce more moisture.
Then within about 20 minutes, rain starts to fall. Long-term studies have shown that the chemicals released into the cloud have no harmful environmental impacts when they fall to the ground as rain.
“When you go out and you seed for a few hours or all day long and really know you did some good, it’s a good feeling,” Funke said.
The radar data collected after a day of seeding adds to a growing body of evidence that the process works. The data shows seeding can double the amount of moisture in a cloud and the Texas programs boast a 12 percent increase in annual rainfall because of seeding.
But despite the data, some of the biggest critics of cloud seedings are the farmers who stand to benefit from it the most. Bill Slomchinski and his family have been farming in Texas for five generations. He and his son Brett said they have to rely on costly irrigation to water their 300 acres of crops. It cuts deeply into their profits, but the Slomchinskis said they are skeptical that anything short of divine intervention can actually produce more rain.
“I don’t know how it works, I don’t know what they’re doing to make it rain,” Slomchinski said. “[But] when you have been in a drought in ’96 and you have had one wet year, is it working?”
Even though cloud seeding can’t end droughts, Funke said every extra drop of water it produces helps feed the underground aquifers used to irrigate crops. So while he can’t promise the Slomchinskis more rainy days, Funke is convinced cloud seeding is helping them in the long run.
“It’s just like a saving account,” he said. “Cloud seeding is a long-term water management tool. You have to do it every year, the wet years, the dry years.”
Tommy Shearrer brushed off critics who say he is playing God by messing with the weather, but while his ideas may be bold, he said he knows not to fight Mother Nature.
“We work with Mother Nature, we try to help Mother Nature,” he said. “In any battle, Mother Nature is always going to win.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio