Back When We Tried To Make It Rain



One of my neighbors said, "We'd better do a rain dance."

The continuing drought has many seeking ways to induce rain to fall on our parched land. Arizonans look in frustration at the continuing downpours and floods in the eastern parts of the United States, and are tempted to join Native Americans in a rain dance.


Rain dances are not a fantasy of motion picture Westerns, they are rooted in sacred, ancient Native American tradition. Apache Crown Dancers in the past were among those who sought a blessing of rain from the gods.

From prehistoric times, people have bowed in awe before the power of the natural environment. Humility and faith in God led rain-seekers to express their desire through prayer, and those prayers took the form of dance.

Apaches believed that much drumming in the camps and the singing of masked Gaan dancers could produce rain. One report records that a dance to bring rain was held at Elsesay's camp on June 24, 1901 near Fort Apache.

The Pueblo tribes have elaborate ceremonies for bringing rain. One of the best known is the Snake Dance of the Hopi. Along with other southwestern tribes, the Hopi believe they originated in the underworld. That is where many of their ancestors and spirit gods live. Since snakes are seen as creatures of the underworld, they are called "brothers" and it is believed they are capable of carrying prayers to the Rainmakers beneath the earth.

Today most Americans give less credence to prayer and talk more of scientific approaches to easing the drought. For one thing, many studies indicate that the present imbalance and disastrous weather patterns are the result of human caused global warming. This combines with the fact that migration has caused populations to expand in vulnerable areas, like our arid Arizona climate. Here, a natural drought, or in California a natural earthquake produce inordinate disasters.

Some scientists call for actions such as seeding the clouds to produce rain. This is called "weather modification."

In the 19th century, attempts to make rain were made by firing canons and guns into the clouds. It produced sound and fury but no rain. However, it did stimulate the idea that something besides prayer could be applied to the weather.

As early as the 1950s, the Salt River Project carried out cloud seeding operations over the Rim country. Propane-burned silver iodide pellets were dropped into potential clouds, but no effort was made to verify the results.

In the 1960s Federal money was secured to establish a weather modification program across 17 Western states. Needless to say, the politics of bureaucracy got into the act, and the statistics from the studies were slanted to justify the continuation of funding. More and more studies resulted, but no additional rain.

A final report in 1987 concluded that at best "a moderate potential likely existed for successful augmentation in some storm situations."

However, studies continued, and in 1987 and 1988 the program continued over the Mogollon Rim, concluding that carefully planned seeding might produce precipitation.

Still more studies were proposed, though the cost was at least $2 million a year.

On December 28, 1994 the Payson Roundup announced a $3 million program was under way to deploy aircraft and ground instruments across the western third of the Rim for a study of winter storms.

The programmers from the University of Arizona were expecting six to eight large storms. The goal was to use computer models to simulate cloud seeding experiments. The problem was that it would take years to analyze the data they collected.

Consider that a large thunderhead six miles tall and wide contains about 20 million gallons of water. If all of that water fell out of the cloud and was distributed evenly over the area under the cloud, the resulting rain would be less than 1/10th of an inch.

If the cloud travels while rain is falling, the precipitation at any point would be even less.

The typical cloud available for seeding has about 1/4th that amount of water to give, or just enough to show up on the sidewalk. Not much of a result.

Several red flags need to be noted in regard to cloud seeding.

  • The seeding process that produces rainfall usually destroys the cloud by the downdraft created. It is no longer able to go on and give more rain.
  • Ordinary cumulus clouds cannot be seeded to produce rainfall. The cloud from which seeding will produce rainfall is already close to producing rain on its own. Seeding simply begins the rain over spot "A" instead of allowing it to dump on spot "B."
  • The problem in a drought is that day after day there are no clouds at all, or only little cumulus clouds that do not hold enough moisture to produce rain. Weather modification is not going to break a drought.
  • There is no clear proof that economically beneficial rainfall results from seeding clouds.
  • The impact of silver iodide on the environment in unknown. It is toxic when ingested and becomes concentrated in this process, ending up in the ground. It could be taken up by the food chain and get into the ground water supply.

Weather modification strategies are extremely tenuous and complicated. One must know the difference between warm clouds and cold clouds, the way clouds form, the way vapor-containing air behaves, and a multitude of highly specialized facts about the formation of rain.

Our technological mentality has given us the false assumption that we humans can command the forces of nature, bending them to our will. New scientific understandings of the atmosphere hardly lead us to think we can control it.

Quite the opposite, the more we know the more evidence shows the majesty and power of nature. We are led back to a more primordial world view.

I should like to trust more in prayerful dances than in cloud seeding to break the present drought. Perhaps our prayers should be aimed at humans who continue to pollute the atmosphere and unbalance the elements.

So with my neighbor I say, "We'd better do a rain dance."

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