In the X-Men movies, superhero Storm conjures and quashes thunderheads and raging winds at will. It's a superpower scientists might like to wield to annihilate hurricanes, but in the real world, they have a better chance of easing the fury of these vicious storms than stopping them. And while we're not even there yet, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will take a significant step this fall toward taming hurricanes.
In the wake of Katrina and Rita in 2005, the DHS began counting hurricanes as national security threats. Last fall the agency asked scientists if any new techniques could change a hurricane's path or minimize its wind speed to reduce Category 5 storms to Category 4, and so on. "The answer is yes, and not just since Katrina. In the past five to 10 years, distinguished scientists have introduced ideas for hurricane modification in the literature," says hurricane scientist Joe Golden, of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.
But those ideas haven't made it into labs, in large part because of a nearly 30-year dry spell in federal funding for weather modification research. Now it appears that hiatus is over. William Laska, a program manager for Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency who is spearheading the hurricane inquiries, says he got approval in May for new research from DHS Under Secretary Jay Cohen. "We're expecting funding in fiscal year '09," Laska says.
This renewed interest comes amid the NOAA Climate Prediction Center's discovery that Atlantic hurricane seasons since 1995 have been the nastiest of any on record — a trend that's likely to continue as global temperatures rise.
By improving our hazy understanding of cloud physics, Golden and other scientists hope to mitigate storms rather than prevent, steer, or annihilate them. "Attempts to use nuclear weapons [to destroy hurricanes] will result in a cure worse than the disease," Golden says. "Any brute force is doomed to fail. The idea is to nudge Mother Nature by attacking a weak point and incrementally modifying natural processes."
A hurricane, also called a typhoon or cyclone, requires three conditions to form: warm ocean water, evaporation, and inward-spiraling winds. Weather modification scientists try to inhibit one or more of these conditions in order to lessen the severity of a storm.
Among the more plausible ideas is exploiting the storm's need for warm water, a concept that proposes pumping cold water from the depths of the sea to the surface, simulating a natural cold upwelling. A group of U.S. scientists is using computer models to explore the scheme. Along the same lines, Atmocean, a private company in Santa Fe, New Mexico, envisions protecting the Gulf of Mexico by deploying roughly 1.6 million vertical tubes, each 2.5 meters in diameter and extending 200 to 300 meters below the surface. A buoy atop each tube and a valve at the bottom will pull cold water to the surface with the motion of every wave.
Russian scientists in the '80s and, later, a group from MIT experimented with impeding evaporation by dispensing a thin layer of emulsifying alcohol over the surface of the ocean. Both studies found that in high winds, the layer of oil broke up and evaporation continued.
In the 1960s, American researchers began attempts to dissipate wind speeds in hurricanes through cloud seeding. They launched the first of three missions that released dry ice and silver iodide into clouds as ice nuclei. None produced conclusive results, and the government closed its coffers to the final scheme, called Stormfury, in 1983. Despite these failures, the idea still has devotees. (A 2003 study documented 66 programs in ten states using cloud-seeding techniques to induce rain over land, mainly in agricultural areas.)
Another idea for lessening wind intensity, a method proposed in the 1970s using soot, still appeals to some. Black carbon particles produced by petroleum-burning ships surrounding the hurricane would absorb solar radiation, creating a heat source at the peripheries and thereby weakening optimal wind conditions in the eye of the storm.
Laska is most encouraged by the soot and seeding approaches because, he says, they're deployable and have a reasonable chance of working. As for the new research program's budget, he says it would be "less than $5 million. Not terribly expensive. What's expensive will be whatever we do [to modify a hurricane]." For Golden, the expense of modifying a hurricane is relative. "Think of the cost of a single Andrew at $30 billion and Katrina at $100 billion. Remember the devastation," he says. "My fundamental premise is that we have to improve hurricane prediction and modeling if there's any hope of modifying them."
This story was written by Victoria Schlesinger for Plenty magazine in September 2008 and now lives on MNN. Copyright Environ Press 2008.