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For some, cloud-seeding is believing

August 24, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

FOXVILLE, Md. - The rain was pelting Bill Wolfe's home atop South Mountain one recent day, seemingly damaging his argument that secretive and illegal cloud-seeding was keeping the area high and dry.

But Wolfe said the downpour only helped to prove his thesis.

"I haven't heard a plane up there all day," said Wolfe, and orchardist and member of Citizens Against Weather Modification (CAWM).

Allegations of local cloud-seeding have persisted - and have been repeatedly denied by weather professionals - for years, but this year's drought has renewed charges that rain is being diverted from the area. Earlier this month of group of farmers met with U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., to express concern that the federal government is orchestrating the drought.

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There has been 21.41 inches of rain so far this year in Hagerstown, far short of last year's record-high total of 76.66 inches and below the annual average of 37.96 inches.

"What we're seeing here is exactly what cloud-seeding is. There is no other reason for it," Wolfe said.

Those who insist cloud-seeding is taking place in this area claim a common scenario takes place: A dark storm cloud moves into the area, giving an appearance that it is about to rain. But then a twin-engine plane flies into the storm cloud and, voila, the mist breaks up and the rain never comes.

"It's almost like clockwork," Wolfe said.

"Once you see it, you'll believe it," said Jack Wetzel, a Funkstown resident and CAWM member who has been researching weather modification since 1983.

Never heard of such a thing? There's a reason, Wetzel said, listing a broad base of possible conspirators - including the government, building contractors and utility companies - who work very quietly to limit rain in certain areas, he said.

"They don't want the general public to know about this kind of thing," Wolfe said.

Cloud-seeding can be done, with planes pumping silver iodide crystals into clouds, but it is typically done to spur precipitation in certain areas, not to divert rain away from communities, meteorologists said.

Furthermore, of the approximately 40 federally approved cloud-seeding programs that exist in the United States, all are west of the Mississippi River and too far from Maryland to have any local impact, said Joseph H. Golden, a senior research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"These people are really grasping at straws," he said.

Golden said another reason to doubt cloud-seeding is taking place is that an effective weather modification program would take several months and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It's much too expensive and much too complex of an undertaking," he said.

As for the dry weather this year, Smithsburg resident and National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Vaughn said it is simply a matter of a shift in the jet stream, which has pushed moisture north and south of this area this year.

"Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory, but I really believe it's not that," Vaughn said.

Michael Callas, president of Callas Contractors Inc. in Hagerstown, said his construction company has never been involved in cloud-seeding, nor does he know of anyone else who has tried to stop rain so that building projects could continue uninterrupted.

"We've got too many other things to worry about," Callas said.

To counter the cynics and experts, Wolfe has collected a stack of cloud-seeding documents two feet tall from libraries, government agencies and the Internet. He said he lacks the smoking gun - the vital document that says cloud-seeding is actually taking place in this area - and doubts that it exists.

"Cloud-seeding is something that is definitely a fact, but to prove that it is going on in this area is almost impossible," Wolfe said.

Wolfe said his belief in cloud-seeding led to his dismissal last year as a volunteer weather watcher for WRC-TV (Channel 4) in Washington, D.C. Wetzel said he has been called everything from a conspiracy kook to a right-wing religious zealot.

But both remained undeterred in their belief.

"It's there. I would bet my life on it. There's nothing I'm that sure of," Wetzel said.

One person who is sitting on the cloud-seeding fence is Gerald Ditto, a Clear Spring hog farmer and president of the Washington County Farm Bureau. He said he knows cloud-seeding is possible, but has yet to be convinced that it is happening here.

"I kind of deal in facts, and that's what I'm looking for," he said.

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