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Hurricane Control

By JB in Culture
Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 01:01:11 PM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)

This little noticed story from CBS News outlines the possibility of breaking up hurricanes before they hit land by seeding the storm's clouds. A recent television follow-up in Florida reported the successful preliminary test of the method on large cumulus clouds.

Sure, cloud seeding has been around for a while. But people have lost interest because it hasn't proved effective in ending drought (the high pressure systems associated with drought don't contain many rain bearing clouds). Most cloud seeding technique has also relied on silver iodide (expensive) or dry ice (difficult to disperse). The recent attempts have used an acrylic polymer powder that absorbs 200 times its weight in water. The polymer, which is commonly mixed with potting soil, is generally considered non-toxic.

Nobody knows if this method will work on a full sized cyclone, or how much of the powder would be needed. But the prospect of intervening against an Andrew sized storm that is bearing down on a big city has obvious appeal. Assuming that it is feasible to turn off a hurricane, it raises an important line of questioning: what are the ecological consequences? Hurricanes play an important role in breaking drought. Most hurricanes actually bring a positive economic benefit; the crops their rainfall saves are worth more than the seaside condos that they destroy. Hurricanes are big enough to affect global heat transfer; tinkering with them may affect ocean and atmospheric temperatures.


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Hurricane Control | 41 comments (30 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
New Scientist (1.66 / 18) (#1)
by Dacta on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 06:52:40 AM EST

There was an article in New Scientist about this a month or so ago. I'll see if I can find the URL - it was pretty interesting, if contriversal.

Interesting, but... (3.55 / 20) (#3)
by spiralx on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 07:12:43 AM EST

... we've all heard the comment about the butterfly, but the chaotic nature of weather systems means that any intervention is going to have to be handled very carefully indeed. Even with the best ideas, you're never going to be entirely certain whether your treatment will have any effect at all, and there's a chance it'll have unintended side effects which could even be worse.

In fact, even if you succeed, what will the knock-on effects across the globe be? A hurricane is a pretty important structure even on a global scale, and the dampening of one is sure to affect a very wide area. You can run all of the simulations you like, but at the end of the day there's still going to be a fairly substantial risk factor to doing this.

It's a neat idea, but I don't think that it's a good idea. This needs to be studied into the ground before any real world deployment, and even then I think it shouldn't be done.

You're doomed, I'm doomed, we're all doomed for ice cream. - Bob Aboey

Do we really want to stop hurricanes? (3.69 / 13) (#7)
by Anonymous 242 on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 09:00:47 AM EST

A hurricane is a pretty important structure even on a global scale, and the dampening of one is sure to affect a very wide area. You can run all of the simulations you like, but at the end of the day there's still going to be a fairly substantial risk factor to doing this.

Exactly. Sometimes folks are so misguided, just because we can (or might be able to) do something doesn't mean that we should.

To a certain extent I'm reminded of people that build their houses in flood plains and have to rebuild every year. Insurance companies lose millions and assorted governments (local, state, and federal) keep trying to keep the rivers from flooding, But you know what? It'd be a heck of a lot simpler to not build houses in a flood plain to start with.

I can't say I'd be particularly fond of having a hurricane or monsoon strength storm hit my house, but I'd rather they hit my house repeatedly than find out the hard way the effects of artificially stopping them.

[ Parent ]

I have an idea... (1.16 / 24) (#9)
by FlinkDelDinky on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 09:22:20 AM EST

I have an idea. Whe should get all the people onto the beach and have them all blow out against the hurricane and the stench will kill it.

Probably a Bad Idea (3.52 / 21) (#11)
by kunsan on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 09:50:34 AM EST

Im no Meteorologist or Ecologist, but I think Mother Nature has just set the precedence that it probably not a good idea to fuck with her.

I doubt I was the only to think of this example, but here it is anyway. The U.S just had millions, YES MILLIONS of acres scorched and blackened by uncontrollable wild fires. Most experts believe that had the U.S National Parks Service not practiced "controlled burning" for the greater part of the last century that this type catastrophe would not have occurred (at least not on the same scale). All the underbrush that would normally burn off during "normal" (as in non-interference from man) had accumulated for so many years, that the forrests became tinder boxes only waitng for a source of ignition (which Mother Nature obligingly supplied).

I live less than five miles from the coast of The Gulf of Mexico, so I have plenty of exposure to the effects of hurricaines. As much as I would like to never have to fear my home being flooded AGAIN, or the roof of my house being blown off (plus the added benefit of cheaper Home Owners / Flood Insurance), I truly believe the consequences of "erasing" hurricaines would bring an ecological disater to the South Eastern U.S.

If there are any among us who are Ecologists, speak up. Also for you code freaks out there, the effects could porbably modeled in a Sim (i.e. weather modeling). I think that would be an interesting product!

With a gun in your mouth, you only speak in vowels -- Fight Club
Re: Probably a Bad Idea (4.00 / 5) (#18)
by El Volio on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 01:55:01 PM EST

  • More and more evidence supports exactly what you're saying about wildfires. It seems that naturally occurring wildfires need to occur with more-or-less frequency to maintain the viability and diversity of the forest. OTOH...
  • Why aren't manmade events considered 'natural'? Why is it that a beaver dam is? It seems to me that we're part of the balance as well, and while that means we need to act with care and caution, it also means we can't just assume that any actions we take, ecologically speaking, are "bad".
  • Weather modelling is considerably more complex than a hacker project. Many of the world's top supercomputers are built for nuclear explosion modelling or weather simulation. It's pretty complex.

[ Parent ]
Re: Probably a Bad Idea (2.60 / 5) (#24)
by CrazyJub on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 03:31:30 PM EST

Soil Moist, a powder of synthetic acrylic co-polymer crystals, has the capacity to absorb over 200 times its weight, according to its manufacturer, JRM Chemical.

Another possible side effect: HUGE BALLS OF GEL FALLING TO THE EARTH!

Imagine getting nailed by one of these suckers!

[ Parent ]
Re: Probably a Bad Idea (3.00 / 1) (#25)
by Mitheral on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 03:50:36 PM EST

Of course they would be falling in a hurricane so you would probably have other worries.

[ Parent ]
Giant Gel Joke (3.00 / 1) (#33)
by your_desired_username on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 09:00:48 PM EST

I think you have entirely missed his point.

This stuff could turn ordinary rainstorms into some of the
  greatest (im)practical joke opportunities ever. 
  *evil grin*.

[ Parent ]
Re: Probably a Bad Idea (4.37 / 8) (#19)
by trhurler on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 01:56:58 PM EST

This same line of argument is used against everything that someone decides mgiht be a good idea. This does not mean that seeding hurricanes IS a good idea, but unless you have actual arguments for HOW and WHY an "ecological disaster" will be caused by such an action, you're just letting emotional nonsense control your opinions. If you're a neo-Luddite or a member of Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, this makes sense, but if you actually prefer to have your views grounded in real science and don't believe in fearmongering and demagoguery as policy tools, then you need a new argument.

Personally, I think this idea is questionable, because we know that hurricanes help more than they hurt most of the time. However, the suggestion that the environment is so fragile that a storm here and there makes all the difference is absurd; it is akin to the scientists who said that detonating a nuclear explosive would burn up the entire atmosphere. They weren't working from facts, but rather from fears.

'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
Re: Probably a Bad Idea (3.00 / 5) (#27)
by Mitheral on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 04:03:59 PM EST

it is akin to the scientists who said that detonating a nuclear explosive would burn up the entire atmosphere. They weren't working from facts, but rather from fears.

I think there is a need for people to work through the what ifs. Your nuclear bomb example is a good one. Until we actually exploded one we had no idea what was really going to happen. That's why they call things experiments. We can have a good, solid, self-consistant hypothesis that can be totally wrong; or can have some unexpected side effect or special case.

After all at one time everyone knew DDT was a good thing and thalidomide just made you sleepy.

[ Parent ]

Re: Probably a Bad Idea (3.00 / 5) (#31)
by trhurler on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 05:34:24 PM EST

What-ifs are different from baseless fears. If you have a fear and you're genuinely concerned that it might be real, fine, investigate - but that's not the same as fearmongering without any pursuit of knowledge. If you've got a genuine desire to just work through what you know asking questions and seeking answers, THEN you have a what-if scenario.

'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
Re: Probably a Bad Idea, and a few reasons why (3.50 / 2) (#35)
by tokage on Fri Sep 29, 2000 at 01:45:04 AM EST

I agree, but we are already messing with nature's intended course just by the way we live, with the greenhouse effect, pollution, depletion of the ozone layer etc. There have been some strange weather pattern changes I've noticed, attributed to El Nino or whatever, but I think in part at least it's the changes of the climate we've introduced. It's extrodinarily difficult to determine the impact we have on the meterological cycle of the planet in any specific detail, especially considering we're not 100%(or even 50% probably) sure of what causes things like El Nino/La Nina, or weather patterns in general. Some El Nino info can be found on http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/toga-tao/el-nino/faq.html, it shows that we're not certain of a lot of cause/effect type stuff related to El Nino, or weather patterns in general, although there have been some really impressive strides made in the past 10 years. No doubt super-computers will help predict/analyze meterological patterns more in depth, with less danger and cost to humans.

Of course, there are arguments that we haven't had -any- significant impact on weather patterns, especially related to the ozone layer, but that seems pretty inane to me. As nice as it would be to control the weather, remember energy cannot be destroyed, and like others have said, the force would have to go elsewhere.

It reminds me of a few stories by an awesome but somewhat obscure scifi author, Cordwainer Smith's books about weather patterns being out of control etc. Really though, gel? Cmon. At least give us something scientific sounding, like inverse propolexing the molecular structure of storm cells. Anyway, eventually with study I think we'll have a good grasp of why these things happen and the best way to control/prevent them, I'm not sure if it's a good idea to implement all this random stuff in the mean time. Testing is all well and good, but it's hard to simulate a hurricane.

I always play / Russian roulette in my head / It's 17 black, or 29 red
[ Parent ]

Re: Probably a Bad Idea-- I Changed My Mind (5.00 / 1) (#36)
by kunsan on Fri Sep 29, 2000 at 09:00:13 AM EST

Yesterday I posted the comment "Probably a Bad Idea" so you already know what my opinion WAS (if you read the comment). Well it is the dawn of a new day and things have changed.

I thought about the replies to my comment (and the replies to the replies). Some very poignant facts were stated both pro & con on this issue. I was decidedly against this yesterday, but after some thinking I started to change my mind, and this is why.

I live in Louisiana, and until just recently we (the same as much of the U.S) were in the midst of a serious drought. So serious that our annual rainfall was nearly 40 inches below normal average. Then Mother Nature kicked in, ran a few hurricaines through the Pan Handle of Florida and gave us (in La.) some much needed rain. So I was thinking that if we had wiped out those hurricaines, we would still have the serious water shortage, etc. etc. The thought that change my mind is that if we had the capability, we could LIMIT the INTENSITY of a hurricaine, as opposed to wiping it out copmpletely. Which would still bring the rain that we need, but also save lives and property.

If we can diminish a category five hurricaine's wind speed (170mph+ I think) down to something like 60-80 mph, I think I can envision this as the so called "right thing to do".

This is not a black | white issue (like I first thought), there is a lot of grey area in the middle where a reasonable solution can probably be found.

With a gun in your mouth, you only speak in vowels -- Fight Club
[ Parent ]
Just cuz we can, doesn't mean we should (3.15 / 13) (#17)
by John Jorsett on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 01:21:55 PM EST

It's probably a measure of the times that the first thing I thought when I read this was, "Man, can the lawyers have a great time with this." If the attempt to break up the storm fails, the lawsuits will say that damage was exacerbated by the attempt to interfere, or it diverted the storm to an area that would have not have been otherwise hit, yada yada yada. Big damage awards. On the other hand, if no attempt is made, the lawsuits will say that the government failed to act and the resulting damage and loss of life is all its fault, yada yada yada. I can't decide whether I've become a cynic or a pragmatist. (At the least, I've probably watched too much Seinfeld).

Please don't ... (3.64 / 14) (#20)
by Dolphineus on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 02:11:13 PM EST

This idea scares the crap out of me for several reasons.

Lets take the typical Atlantic hurricane which forms off the northern coast of Africa. As these storm systems cross the Atlantic they encounter warmer water, which is absorbed by the hurricane, which increases its strength. My knowledge of weather systems is admittedly limited. From what I understand, it is the action of this water being absorbed into the system, rising into the atmosphere, and air rushing down to replace it, that causes the cyclic motion of a hurricane.

First, would it work on a hurricane strength storm? Would it be possible to remove enough water from the system to reduce the size of the storm? From the article, they estimate "it would take ten military heavy-lift aircraft dropping their loads in the eye of the storm, every hour" to have an effect. Putting on that kind of air show in a hurricane will not be easy.

Second, will the action of removing the water from the cloud, down into the sea, cause the storm to slow? If the storm is still over warm water, wouldn't it just accelerate the the wind speeds as the system draws the water back out of the ocean?

Third and most important, what effect does this have on the overall weather patterns? Come on, we can't predict the weather very well as it is, let alone when you start mucking with something as powerful as a hurricane.

Frankly, this type of thinking frightens me. Trying to stop a hurricane? Might as well try to reposition an immovable object. I have had an irrational fear that scientists who think like this will be the death of us all. There are some things we should not attempt to mess with till we understand everything about them. This is one of them. Please don't mess with mother nature. She will not lose ...

C ya

Re: Please don't ... (2.25 / 4) (#28)
by cetan on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 05:15:41 PM EST

I agree. This sounds scary at best. We can't predect when a Nino will happen (either El or La), We can't predict what the winter will be like, hell, we can't even really predict what it will be like next week...

Do we really think we know that much about the worlds weather to begin disturbing and _obviously_ self-generated, self-correcting and/or self-regulating even such as a hurricane?!

There is no possible way to predict what hurricanes regulate in the global or even local environment...
===== cetan www.cetan.com =====
[ Parent ]
Re: Please don't ... (3.00 / 1) (#30)
by cetan on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 05:32:35 PM EST

I really need to preview my posts better.

disturbing and = disturbing an

self-regulating even = self-regulating event

There are others, of course.
===== cetan www.cetan.com =====
[ Parent ]
Re: Please don't ... (4.00 / 1) (#38)
by El Volio on Fri Sep 29, 2000 at 10:39:49 AM EST

You're right, that is an irrational fear. Let's not panic and start believing that Science Is A Force For Evil, as some folks would have us believe. The fact that this discourse is even taking place shows why: humanity is not ruled by scientists, and not all scientists are out to achieve some myopic goal with no thought to its implications.

Does anyone here really believe that the very folks working on this haven't thought about it? I'm far from saying that we should just trust them and let people do what they want, but let's not start assuming that K5 (and people like us -- your friends, neighbors, family, etc) are the only ones considering it, and the rest of the world is willy-nilly going about the Destruction Of Mankind.

At the construction of the first dam, there were probably similar concerns. The first fire. Hell, we live in a world where people are more scared of the energy from the cellphone next to their head than all the other radiation (from VHF signals to microwave transmissions) going through our bodies. The world is not going to end based on this project, especially if it's handled in a reasonable, cautious, scientific manner, ie a limited test on a small storm, preferably far away from land.

Sure, there's lots to think about here, but this is not Armageddon.

[ Parent ]

Heat Engines (2.81 / 11) (#21)
by dzimmerm on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 02:22:02 PM EST

I was told that a huricane is one of the largest heat engines in the world. I am unsure of the exact mechanisms involved. I know evaporation and condensation tend to move heat energy from one area to another. I wonder how stopping the condensation will affect the flow of energy in the system. Will the gell end up transferring the heat more effectively than the water would have?

We need someone who is well versed in Thermodynamics to analyse this and see what they think.

Removing moisture tends to make the air more dense due to water vapor being lighter than nitrogen. Dense air tends to sink. How will that affect the Corollas forces that started the cyclonic movement of the air masses?

I would think the fastest way to stop a hurricane would be to remove the sunlight that falls on it during the day. Aside from a large reflective panel between the earth and the sun I do not know how you could cut off sunlight selectively.

I think I have read too much sci-fi.


A few things... (4.00 / 1) (#37)
by HMV on Fri Sep 29, 2000 at 09:39:36 AM EST

1) It's true about the heat engine description of a cyclone. In a well-formed one (look at Isaac right now), you have an easily visible outflow fanning from the system dispersing the heat of the ocean water into the upper atmosphere. That energy is also transferred in the copious amounts of water vapor which eventually reaches the ground in a landfalling system.

2) The Coriolis effect has to do with inertia related to the rotation of the earth and not with air density or composition. It is also the reason why few cyclones form within 10 degrees latitude of the equator. If anyone still has a phonograph, try tracing a straight line from center to edge while the turntable is spinning. You'll see the same principle in action.

3) Cutting off sunlight would only work if you were willing to plunge the entire subtropics into darkness for the months it receives direct sunlight. Tropical cyclones feed from the warm waters of the ocean and not the energy of the sun shining on it during the day - they can intensify overnight and weaken during the day just as well as they can the other way 'round.

4) I am predisposed to be skeptical of these kinds of ideas. The planet is a very adaptive and self-maintaining system. There are checks built in. If there is warming on a large scale, the air at higher latitudes can hold more moisture, you get increased cloud cover and snowpack, you cool back down. Similarly, these cyclones, while occasionally inconvenient to us (who continue to build up the coastline) are necessary to transfer large amounts of heat energy from low to high latitudes. It's a system that works and has worked. Further, not only do I think such an idea is wise, I don't think it could be done even if we wanted to. It's hubris to think that we can match the incredible power (dozens of h-bombs per day in equivalent energy) contained in and moved around by these systems.

[ Parent ]
Thank you (2.00 / 1) (#39)
by dzimmerm on Fri Sep 29, 2000 at 10:57:02 AM EST

Your clarifications and simple imagery made some of my ideas much clearer.

My feeling is that we could not provide enough of a change by adding the gell forming substance to the hurricane to effect the hurricane positively or negatively.

As to should we attempt such a thing? IMO Such a question is pretty much useless because as humans we are constantly doing things just to see if we can. It is our nature to manipulate our environment in ways both good and bad. This historical fact means that looking at consequences of various acts would be a very good idea. Wild speculation is much better than no speculation at all.

[ Parent ]

Would what the other countries think? (2.66 / 12) (#22)
by pastorangryshanez on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 02:46:42 PM EST

I remeber hearing something about this before. Apparently we had to stop because of the fact other countries were getting upset that we might change the hurricanes path and send heading torwards them. Heh. We manage to weaken the hurricane but we also accidently change its course, now it's heading straight torwards mexico instead of texas! Who's to blame?

Helping Hurricane Alley? (4.20 / 10) (#23)
by the coose on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 03:25:05 PM EST

I live on the southeastern North Carolina coast - right in the middle of Hurricane Alley - and after loosing almost all of my belongings (furniture, computer equipment, ham radio gear) to Fran in 1996, I must say that Cordani's intentions seem good. I wouldn't wish that kind of catastrophe on anybody but at the same time it gave me great respect for nature and the awesome power that it has.

It seems that this guy wants to reduce the destructive force of hurricanes. My first reaction is great, go for it. The past few years have been really active around here; in fact this is the first year in quite a while that we haven't had a tropical system come through. And it's almost October! But I also share the same concerns as other posts. Hurricanes serve an important function in nature and that is to transfer heat. It spreads the heat of the tropics to parts both northern and southern thereby creating more temperate climates where there would otherwise be colder climates. By reducing the destructive force of hurricanes, it is quite conceivable that we'll alter global climate in the long run.

And even though I live near the coast (actually 15 minutes from the beach) I chose to live here. If another hurricane come through and takes out everything I own again, I have no one to blame but myself. I liken it to the situation on the west coast. If you move to California, you have to expect earthquakes; it comes with the package. You may suffer lose but you chose to live there so deal with it.

This idea of taming hurricanes is still quite interesting and I'm going to follow this research, but I wouldn't expect to see any of this happening in the near future.

Re: Helping Hurricane Alley? (3.00 / 1) (#41)
by fprintf on Fri Sep 29, 2000 at 02:39:54 PM EST

It would seem to me that you should just move *away* from Hurricane Alley then. I mean no disrespect, but clearly there are dangerous places to live, and less dangerous places to live. You can always come here to Connecticut, but then you risk killing yourself getting to work in the Winter. California... nah, Earthquakes, mudslides and killer housing costs. Arizona... too much need for water. On second thought, just stay where you are, get lots of insurance and forget about this "seeding" think. For many of us up North the hurricane season is the welcome end to summer drought - we get a lot of our Water when the storms rip through the Carolinas and then just end up dumping lots of rain all the way up the coast. :-)
Wear sunscreen.
[ Parent ]
Been there, done that... (4.10 / 10) (#26)
by analog on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 03:59:48 PM EST

They dumped something different into the hurricanes, but this is pretty much what Project Stormfury attempted. They had hints of some success, but nothing conclusive.

One thing to keep in mind, though: hurricanes are one of the most powerful natural forces on the planet. They contain a mind bending amount of energy. If you weaken or stop a hurricane, that energy has to go somewhere. I'm not sure I'd want to be the one who made the decision to kill a hurricane to find out where.

Re: Been there, done that... (4.40 / 5) (#29)
by the coose on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 05:23:11 PM EST

I think the conclusion of the Project Stormfury article sums up these attempts at controlling hurricanes best:

Money that could be spent on trying to find ways to weaken hurricanes would be better spent on building stronger houses in areas that hurricanes hit, Simpson says.

[ Parent ]
Blast them with microwaves? (3.66 / 6) (#32)
by Dacta on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 07:08:00 PM EST

The NewScientist artictle I mentioned having seen wasn't about using cloud seeding to break up hurricanes. Sorry... it was still interesting, though.

It was actually about controlling tornadoes by blasting them with microwave beams from space!

Yes, I'm serious, and I think the article is, too. Read it: http://www.newscientist.com/features/features.jsp?id=ns225113

You may also want to read a a letter published later, from the NOAA/National Severe Storms Laboratory.

"Considered" non-toxic??? (3.00 / 4) (#34)
by Zagadka on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 10:03:37 PM EST

Another issue that should be checked out is whether this polymer really is non-toxic and has no harmful effects on wildlife. There are many plastics that will leach out estrogen-like chemicals. This can have rather nasty effects on many animals, particularly fish. I'm not a chemist or a biologist, so I have no idea whether this is a possible risk with the seeding material being used. It would be better to find out in labs than in the oceans though...

Live with it! (4.00 / 2) (#40)
by Milinar on Fri Sep 29, 2000 at 02:27:38 PM EST

We live on earth - a place we neither created nor understand. That is a simple fact and it's not likely to change any time soon.

You'll never here me say that scientific research is a bad thing, or that progress=evil. But draw the line somewhere! As some of the other replies have much more eloquently put, hurricanes are among the most powerful forces on earth - and something that one should NOT f*ck with. Why? Because the earth is a damn fragile place and something that we *truly* do *not* completely understand.

And what's next? Controlling earthquakes? Why not screw with the tectonic plates! Tidal waves? Let's blow up the moon!

Thank you for your concern, but no. Humanity hasn't yet learned how to live *with* nature, so the notion of *controlling* nature (on such a scale) is, in my mind, absurd.

Hurricane Control | 41 comments (30 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
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