Severe drought grips central FL

BY SUSAN KIM | Polk County, FL | January 25, 2001

Brushfires spawned by the most severe drought in the nation are sparking anxiety in central Florida.

On Thursday high winds fueled a 1,000-acre brush fire burning out of control around the Lake-Polk county line, and emergency crews dug a fire line around 150 homes in the Polo Park area on the outer edge of the Green Swamp.

Officials said the fire could burn at least another 1,000 acres and last two more weeks because thick swamp brush burns for a long period of time and can also bar access for fire fighters.

The high-anxiety situation for nearby homeowners has happened time and again in Florida's rural counties, and it's likely to get more serious as unrelenting dryness continues.

Brush fires are burning out of control earlier in the season than normal, said Jim Loftus, spokesperson for Florida state emergency management, adding that Florida is currently under the most severe drought in the country.

"This doesn't bode well for us," he said. "The outlook for rainfall is below normal. If the drought continues, both the fire season and crop damage have the potential to be "very, very serious."

It already is serious, said Dr. Ron Patterson, field director for Christian Disaster Response. Based in Polk County, Patterson could see the smoke clouds from Thursday's fire. More than 5,000 acres have burned in Polk County in the past several months.

Patterson said that the drought - considered a 'hundred-year drought' -- has already had a serious impact on the farming community. "Things are critical and they'll be getting worse. Private wells are starting to go dry and lakes are low. It's having a very adverse effect on farm workers. Everything is tinder-dry."

Christian Disaster Response has been providing food, rental assistance, and medical assistance for farm workers, he said.

For states like Florida, research in cloud seeding -- or releasing silver iodide or smoke into clouds to speed formation of water -- may seem to hold promise for relieving drought conditions in the future.

At an American Meteorological Society meeting held in Albuquerque, scientists heard results from an experiment in Mexico that rekindled interest in cloud seeding, a practice that has undergone experimental testing for more than 60 years.

In the new experiments, Roelof Bruintjes, a cloud physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO, claimed to produce 30 to 50 percent more rain from the clouds his teams seeded. NCAR teams flew into rain clouds and spewed salted smoke using flares. The tiny particles -- a mixture of sodium, magnesium, and calcium chlorides -- attracted and absorbed the surrounding water vapor to more readily create drops heavy enough to fall out as rain.

"We are very encouraged by the results," said Bruintjes but added that the number of cases is marginal for any statistical analysis. The team is optimistic that more seasons in the field will help establish statistical significance.

Some researchers noted that the conclusion was the same as one reached in South Africa in the early 1990s.

Other scientists remain unconvinced that cloud seeding can produce fruitful results and that, worse, the research brings false hope to people suffering under droughts.

Peter Hobbs, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, is a self-proclaimed skeptic with regard to cloud seeding. "It's a subject that's been pursued at researched for 60-odd years without much success," he said. "Plus, what's being done now is largely the same as what's been done for 60 years.

"Is there any reason to expect different results? But hope always seems to be eternal with regard to cloud seeding," he said.

Scientists -- not even Bruintjes -- say they can't explain exactly how the seeding process works in a cloud.

Of the field of technology that falls into the category of "weather modification," cloud seeding - even with all that's still unknown - is among the most advanced, said Stephanie Kenitzer of the American Meteorological Society. At the same meeting where the cloud seeding results were unveiled, other scientists discussed hail suppression and tornado suppression, she said.

"Tornado suppression is still way out there. There are questions about whether we should be trying to do that at all. Is it dangerous to alter a tornado's path or strength? There are some outstanding ethical and social questions."

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