UW Research Project Profiled in Documentary Film Chronicling the West

August 28, 2012
Two people conversing
Sofie Benoot (right), a documentary filmmaker from Brussels, Belgium, discusses a shot with pilot Brett Wadsworth. Benoot and a crew filmed a segment about UW Professor Bart Geerts’ weather modification research for a documentary called “Desert Haze.” Wadsworth flies the King Air research aircraft.

A Belgian filmmaker is chronicling the pioneering spirit of the West. And she’s chosen a University of Wyoming research project as a key part of her visual depiction.

Sofie Benoot, a documentary filmmaker who already has chronicled America’s South in a film called “Blue Meridian,” now has her sights set on telling a story about the entrepreneurial spirit of the West, including a segment about Bart Geerts, a UW professor of atmospheric science, and his pilot, Brett Wadsworth. Her new documentary is titled “Desert Haze.”

Geerts' research focuses on cloud seeding, a process in which silver iodide is released into the clouds through generators strategically placed upwind of the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre ranges. The silver iodide facilitates ice crystal formation. Geerts uses lidar and radar to collect precipitation data. Lidar, or light detection and ranging, is an optical remote sensing technology that can detect and measure cloud droplets in the atmosphere.

Benoot says she was attracted to the weather modification project because she is aware that water is a vital resource in the drought-ravaged West.

“I want to show that Wyoming is not only cowboys and prairies, but that there is important science going on here,” says Benoot, who studied documentary filmmaking at Sint-Lukas Brussels University College of Art and Design.

Benoot and her three-person film crew were in town Aug. 17 and shot footage of King Air, the research plane, at the UW hangar at Laramie Regional Airport and interviewed Wadsworth, a UW pilot who often flies Geerts around for his research. They interviewed Geerts at the airport Aug. 19.

“I was keen to have that international exposure,” Geerts says of the experience. “They did it professionally. They made sure they had the sound and lights just right.”

Geerts says Benoot asked what most people ask about his cloud-seeding research: “Does it work?” and “Does it have any negative effects?,” the latter question meaning whether cloud seeding over one mountain range eliminates or reduces precipitation downwind of the range.

At this point, Geerts says there are no definitive answers as the Wyoming Weather Modification Pilot Project will continue for two more years and more observations are needed to draw any conclusions. Geerts’ research on cloud seeding is part of the Silver Iodide Seeding Cloud Impact Investigation – or ASCII – which piggybacks on the Wyoming Weather Modification Pilot Project’s ongoing efforts. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds the ASCII project.

In 2005, the Wyoming State Legislature approved a weather modification study administered by the Wyoming Water Development Office. The study uses the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to provide scientific verification.

Earlier this year, Geerts won the first-ever National Institutes for Water Resources (NIWR) Program IMPACT Award, which recognized the nation’s best federal research projects funded by the Water Resources Research Act (WRRA). His project was titled “Detecting the Signature of Glaciogenic Cloud Seeding in Orographic Snowstorms in Wyoming Using the Wyoming Cloud Radar.”

“The whole documentary is about the American West -- its history and present -- and where the two collide,” says Benoot, who read Cormac McCarthy novels and watched old Westerns while growing up in Brussels. “Our goal is to compare the myth of the West to the reality of the West.”

The group began filming at the Continental Divide, she says. Other segments of the documentary will focus on the Mormons’ journey to Utah as well as a dinosaur fossil hunter in that state; ranchers who use Cinematographer Fairuz Ghammam and director Sofie Benoot,  documentary filmmakers from Belgium, set up a shot inside the hangar at the Laramie Regional Airport.wind turbines in Wyoming; the use of the Nevada desert for training exercises conducted by the U.S. military; and an interview with a modern-day California gold seeker, Benoot says. She and the crew are in the second month of three months of filming. Much of their trek crosses portions of the old California Trail early settlers traveled to reach the Golden State, she says.

“It’s sort of a fishing expedition into many interesting subjects that will be woven together” into one film, Geerts says of his conversation with Benoot.

The documentary, which will be approximately two hours in length, won’t be finished until August 2013, Benoot says. She plans to enter the film in various international and American film festivals, have it air on Belgian television, and released on DVD and possibly the Internet. The documentary is funded by the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) Film Commission in Belgium and private sponsorships, she says.

The film will complete her trilogy, which examines different regions of the United States. “Blue Meridian” explored life in the American South in towns along the Mississippi River and her graduation film project, “Frontiersmo,” focused on locals living in small communities along the American-Mexican border.

“It was certainly unexpected to find myself in front of a camera, with a possible movie appearance. It’s not something I anticipated in Laramie,” Wadsworth says. “It was interesting to be a part of it, but I don’t think there is much a future in the acting business for me.”

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