Is Irrigation Making Rain Clouds?

One of the 80 weather stations being deployed across the Nebraska countryside by UAH researchers.

University of Alabama in Huntsville researchers were busy over the summer helping track weather conditions in the corn fields of Nebraska to figure out if acres and acres of corn plants, as far as the eye can see, can change the weather.

This isn’t a new idea. Recall the age-old saying, “Rain follows the plow.” The researchers wondered about the effects of billions of corn plants, each behaving as a small pump as it grows, pulling water from irrigated soil and releasing it into the air. Could Nebraska’s 9.3 million acres of corn be conspiring to make clouds or otherwise impact the climate?

To examine this question, UAH scientists built a grid of low-cost weather stations, each mounted on a spike to stand in the field, to measure temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity and other variables. UAH’s Dr. Udaysankar Nair, an associate professor of atmospheric science, and his graduate students did the work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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“We did some numerical modeling, and when you put in large-scale irrigation it’s going to cool the air right overhead,” Nair said. “You also have more moisture to form clouds, but immediately overhead and downwind of that you actually get reduced rain. The models show the moisture being piped to other areas.” This model result needs to be tested with real observations, he noted.

The 80 weather stations were to file their final data reports by the end of August, at which point the scientists would start the process of sorting it out.

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