WASHINGTON – After a brutal year of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts, lawmakers are looking for ways to beat Mother Nature.
And while it's still a bit of a long shot, Uncle Sam could be called in to sponsor research to find ways to blast dangerous storms out of the sky or put rain clouds over parched land.
"This is a fascinating subject to me, and the idea that we can actually impact weather is exciting, and I guess, frightening in some ways," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said during a November hearing on a bill that could start up a federal weather modification research program.
In a bill introduced this year by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a new board of scientists would be able to dole out federal research money for weather modification, which she said is important, especially considering this year's record-breaking hurricane season. Highlighted by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the 26-named storm season continued past its official end date of Nov. 30 this year. Tropical Depression Epsilon, formerly a hurricane, was still chugging along the north Atlantic on Thursday evening.
Hutchison's bill passed out of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last month and is headed to the Senate floor, but how much money will be appropriated for grants remains to be seen.
The bill initially planned to set aside $10 million a year for 10 years to enable researchers to come up with ideas to control the hazards of weather or provide benefits like water resource management. The money is less than scientists wished for, but much higher than the current amount being spent on weather modification: zero.
But during the committee mark-up in mid-November, the language was changed to remove the specific dollar amount and provide "funding as necessary." The bill was also amended to move the proposed program out of the Commerce Department and into the White House.
DeMint, who was initially excited about the proposal, later opposed earmarking money for the project, his spokesman Wesley Dinton told FOXNews.com.
"This plan deserves further consideration, but at a time of serious deficits, we must delay committing additional funds to this project until we have more time to consider its merits," Dinton said.
"I'm disappointed that the funding was removed, but I'm hopeful," said Michael Golden, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder who retired earlier this year from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Golden was among three scientists who supported the bill in testimony before the Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space, chaired by Hutchison.
Without a specific dollar amount for the program, Golden said creating the board is "just a paperwork exercise for naught."
Despite the apparent setback for proponents of the bill, a companion measure sponsored by Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is awaiting action in the House. Golden said he's still optimistic that money could be set aside, and even though he feels "it's been watered down from the original, it's better than nothing."
While several countries are currently researching weather modification, the United States abandoned its most prominent government effort in the 1980s. Project Storm Fury, which began in the 1960s, has been credited by some with providing useful information. However, its effectiveness was questioned and research problems plagued the project, NOAA spokeswoman Jana Goldman said.
The results "couldn't be reproduced. That's one of the problems," Goldman told FOXNews.com. "These [studies] were deemed kind of inconclusive."
NOAA's Hurricane Research Division is now geared toward studying and predicting hurricanes, but does not research weather modification.
Not everyone has given up on weather modification, however. Projects currently going on right now are attempting to shake snow out of clouds over the Sierra mountains in California, reduce hail over North Dakota and lift fog over airports and other transportation systems.
During the subcommittee hearing, Hutchison noted this year’s extraordinary weather patterns and probed the scientists on what could possibly be done "to take out the violence of a storm.”
Michael Garstang, a University of Virginia professor who helped author a 2003 report by the National Academy of Sciences, told the senator that some of the research that emerged from Project Storm Fury indicated that cloud-seeding could reduce a hurricane’s strength by as much as 15 percent, which mathematically means reducing the storm’s destructive power exponentially.
Garstang also said that newer computer models also show how hurricanes can be controlled. These models are focusing on the “very small effects [that] might have quite drastic consequences." He pointed out that the models can't yet determine the origin of chain reactions that lead to large weather patterns like tornadoes and hurricanes.
Golden, however, downplayed the long-standing concerns that trying to control storm systems could result in worse weather. Some tests in western states that tried to induce snowfall showed either no effects beyond the target area or very little effect, he said.
Falling Behind the Curve
Research into cloud physics has all but disappeared, Golden said, and domestic research funding could offer scientists the resources to discover how storms begin.
Private money now spent is far less than what the federal government expended during the heyday of weather-change research, added Garstang. Research spending in the 1970s was about $20 million. By 2003, it had dwindled to less than $500,000, according to the National Academy of Sciences report.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that any investment by this bill in weather modification research would yield big payoffs in the prediction area,” Golden said at the hearing.
Thomas DeFelice, the Science and Technology Programs Manager at I.M. Systems Group and a past president of the Weather Modification Association, said the slow-down into weather modification research puts the U.S. scientific community at risk of losing its stature to foreign scientists. Strong research programs are being conducted in Europe and Asia, he said.
Garstang said further studies could yield an untold number of advances in weather knowledge, comparing weather modification studies to medical research.
“Let’s assume that all of cardiac investigations were prevented from using the technological advances that occurred in heart research in the last 20 years. Where would we be in preventing heart disease today? We would be way behind where we are,” Garstang said.
The scientists added that a cart and horse problem persists because considerable cash is being dropped into weather modification experiments that don't have the benefit of substantive research. They cited one company's study that estimated as much as $30 million is being spent on weather modification in the United States.
Golden said a federal effort could help gather data from the individual programs as well as point them in the right direction if they are straying from effective weather-altering methods.
One amateur weather observer said he had mixed feelings over the proposal. Greg Machos, a New Jersey resident who runs a Web site dedicated to hurricanes, said he has been interested in tropical weather patterns since he was a child. He said he thinks additional spending is a good thing, though $10 million a year might be on the low side.
"Consider the damage by Hurricane Katrina. ... They've got to invest some money," Machos told FOX News. "Time and time again, this stuff happens again. They real question is whether or not we're going to learn anything from what happened this year."
DeFelice told FOXNews.com this week that he's optimistic Congress will approve Hutchison's bill despite the removal of funding. He said researchers could easily use $50 million a year.
He added that restarting a federal weather modification research program could help solve some of the world's most pressing problems. In addition to trying to curb deadly storms, scientists hope one day to be able to control the weather so no one suffers from droughts.
"We don't want to play gods, but we do want to help nature," DeFelice said. "And because of pollution, we may need to help nature along a little more than we had in the past."