Pilots face ‘really violent’ threats after online rumors mistakenly pin devastating floods on cloud seeding

Sydney — An Australian airline company says it has received more than 100 threats over an online conspiracy theory that its pilots unleashed a flood disaster by cloud seeding† Conspiracy theorists spread the false claims on social media after weeks of torrential rain, the past two months have led to deadly flooding on the east coast, inundating homes and sweeping cars off the roads.

Reports shared online alleged aerial research pilots from Handel Aviation caused a second deluge in the flood-ravaged New South Wales town of Lismore on March 31 through cloud seeding – a substance dispersed in the clouds to cause rain.

Australia hit by floods for the second time in weeks
In the northern city of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, March 30, 2022, a car is submerged in floodwater after heavy rain in a video recording.

Seven Network/Handout/REUTERS

A Handel Aviation pilot at Cessna 210N Centurion VH-JIL did a cloud seeding over Lismore South and Ballina over breakfast today while beholding the massive flood below him, a widely circulated report reads.

The flight path of the Handel Aviation aircraft VH-JIL that criss-crosses over flooded areas was also shared online by Australian fashion designer Alice McCall, alongside claims it dropped chemicals to “trigger rain”.

Trade Aviation operator Mark Handel told AFP on Thursday that the company is not sowing clouds.

The flight collected images for aerial maps provided to Australian mapping company NearMap, it said.

“Handel Aviation only operates aerial photography aircraft. Our recent flights over flooded areas of NSW and QLD are in response to the flooding,” a statement on the Handel Aviation website reads.

NearMap confirmed to AFP that the photos taken by Handel Aviation were commissioned to map disaster-stricken areas for insurers and emergency services.

“These aerial surveys are taken after major weather and natural disasters, including the recent flooding on the East Coast,” said NearMap’s spokesperson.

The claims circulating online led to more than 100 threats being sent to Handel Aviation, despite explaining the purpose of the flights on the contact page of the company’s website.

“There were really violent threatening things coming through. Like, ‘We have the names of the pilots, we know where you live, you’re going to pay for this,’ sort of things,” Handel told AFP.

FILE PHOTO: Young Australians take climate protest to Prime Minister's residence
A flooded road is seen in Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, after heavy rain on March 2, 2022.

MONKEY Image/Jason O’Brien/REUTERS

Handel said he instructed his operations manager, Anthony Berko, to respond to every email and call people who had provided their phone numbers.

Some of those he contacted were surprised or angry, Berko said. But others were alarmed and told the veteran pilot they lost everything in the floods and believed the company was responsible.

“They needed a shoulder to cry on and hear their story. They basically lost everything and then someone said: here’s your answer,” Berko said.

Despite the online claims, cloud seeding is not responsible for the east coast flooding, said Simon Siems, a weather change expert.

Siems, a professor who leads a team at Monash University studying clouds and precipitation, said the practice is not being conducted in the Northern Rivers region and it cannot cause flooding.

“Cloud seeding is not that effective, people only do it under very special circumstances,” he said.

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