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News: Sowing The Seeds Of Winter

Fall Line
posted: 11/08/2000

Larry Hjermstad does more than dream of white Christmases. His cloud-seeding company, Western Weather Consultants, delivers them gift-wrapped to four Colorado resorts. Durango, Vail, Beaver Creek and Telluride look to Hjermstad to create holiday cheer in the form of early snow, which can make or break a resort's ski season.

"The attraction is simple," says Mike Smedley, spokesman for Durango Mountain Resort. "It can be the difference between three inches and six inches, which makes it a powder day."

Resorts typically seed clouds from Nov. 1 to Feb. 1. Hjermstad says he can boost a storm's snowfall by 10 to 15 percent. Inducing blizzards isn't cheap. Durango is splitting a $40,000 seeding effort with a regional water conservation district, while Vail and Beaver Creek are spending $130,000 between them to seed for three months this season.

Forget the image of daredevil crop-duster pilots climbing into the heavens to seed clouds. Hjermstad uses 6-foot-tall land-based generators-gas-fueled burners, really-to send plumes of vaporized silver-iodide crystals into storm fronts. "Think of watching leaves burn and seeing the smoke trail up into the clouds. It's the same effect," he says.

The iodide crystals act as dust particles and become snowflake nuclei, with moisture condensing around them to form flakes. The generators are located about 40 miles upwind from the target zone. It takes about 30 minutes for the heated plume to rise into the clouds, have the crystals chill, attract moisture and fall onto happy skiers' heads.

Unlike the hard, granular stuff blown by guns, seeded snow is the real thing. "Short of a chemical analysis, you cannot tell the difference between my snow and natural snow," Hjermstad says. Vail has used Western Weather Consultants for 25 years. With natural snowfall varying greatly from valley to valley and even from slope to slope at the same ski resort, cloud-seeding results are famously hard to track, which exposes "seeders" to charges of chicanery. Hjermstad, however, knows what he sees out in the mountains each winter. "Vail might get a foot while neighboring areas get six or seven inches," he says. "That's happened often enough so I feel good about what I'm doing."

Hjermstad's cloud-seeding, however, isn't a replacement for Mother Nature; it's more like a mountain Hamburger Helper to boost the volume of natural snow. "We still cannot make a storm cloud out of nothing," he says.

Brick Etiquette
Who needs to win a gold medal when you can achieve Olympic immortality on a brick instead? For $50, you can be part of the Official Olympic Legacy Brick Program and have drunken Hermann Maier fans walk all over you in 2002. The Salt Lake Olympic Committee is selling commemorative bricks with personalized inscriptions. The actual paving stones used by Salt Lake's settlers in the early 1900s, the excavated sandstone bricks will line the downtown Olympic Legacy Plaza, the centerpiece of the city's Olympic development. Buyers can write an inscription of up to two lines, 17 characters per line. After the bribery scandal hammered the city's psyche last year, Salt Lake organizers are nothing if not paranoid about the Games' image. Brick police are officially on duty. So an inscription of, say, "Salt Lake Olympics: The Best Games Money Can Buy" will not make it onto the downtown streets. "We want the bricks to be appropriate for public display," says a Salt Lake Games spokesman. To buy a brick, log onto www.saltlake2002.com. Then go step on yourself in 2002.

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