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How to stop a hurricane (good luck, by the way)

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As another hurricane season passes, I’m disappointed I didn’t hear Bill Gates resound with last year’s grand (yet perhaps logistically impossible) idea to dump tons of cold water in the path of moving twisters like Karl, Danielle, Lisa, and Tomas. Maybe Steve Jobs is plotting a more hip idea for 2011…

Despite a tech mogul’s proclivity to bet on a solution, we know very little about how to stop a hurricane, though there are many quirky options on the table. I’ll give you silver iodide, a supersonic jet, and raise you a nuclear warhead. You think I’m kidding.

Recent research says microscopic phytoplankton of all things might slow down the blustery beasts. These tiny photosynthetic plants, floating like mile-wide, flat bushes in the ocean, may drink up the sunshine that would normally warm waters and thereby feed hurricanes (cyclones,) say scientists at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics lab in Princeton.

In the cyclone nursery, warm surface water evaporates quickly and, when it’s reached the cold cloud-cover above, condenses quickly. Droplets rain down on the open ocean. Winds blowing over the warm surface water encourage even more evaporation. Storms bluster forth. The spinning of the earth gets it turning, more heat of condensation is released, the energy of the thing builds, and BOOM—you got yourself a rotating tropical cyclone with a vertical engine churning out heat energy equal to exploding a 10 megaton nuclear bomb every 20 minutes. If phytoplankton could stop the warm air ascension and render a cyclone impotent, generations of researchers would love to see it in action.

Right now, it’s just a computer model that shows cyclone formation slowing down when it hits a patch of green. So how can that help us? Should we dump hundreds of gallons of phytoplankton in the 600-mile-wide path of a cyclone? The ecosystem effects could be devastating. And, with our current predictive technologies, there’s no way to know exactly where this thing will go each minute. There are too many unknowns.

Most cyclone-stopping schemes (and there’s no lack of interesting ones) never make it out of theory stage for two reasons: logistics of putting it into action plus unpredictability of the cyclone itself.

That’s why many scientists were skeptical of Bill Gates’ ‘dump a bunch cold water on it’ strategy. In 2009, the Gates’ funded company Intellectual Ventures proposed towing 200 cold-water buoys into the path of a potential cyclone. But, cyclones pop up so quickly (one hour, it’s just a spot of low pressure, the next hour, it’s halfway to cyclone status) that airplanes or barges doing the towing would have to be on higher alert than Canadian snowplows in January. It would be extremely difficult to get dozens of buoy-laden helicopters or ships out over the ocean and into a precise location within 12 hours. (Air traffic control would be a nightmare.) And, even if you knew where it was going (not exactly possible with current technology), you would have to cover an estimated 60 square miles just in front of the cyclone, says Bill Gates’ team. If you weren’t sure which path it would take, you would have to cover at least 3 sides, tripling the cost and the coordination efforts, and even then you’re just slowing it down a bit.

Though Gates’ idea sounds too cumbersome and costly to be worth the effort, other solutions sound like they’re ripped right out of a comic book.

Last year, fluid dynamics engineer Arkady Leonoy of the University of Akron suggested sending supersonic jets careening into the eye of a cyclone and have them circle around and around, against the flow of its winds. According to Leonoy, the winds and sonic booms from the jets might slow the storm and cut off the circulation of warm air from below. NOAA scientists are skeptical. An equally feasible possibility is that the jets get torn apart by the cyclonic wind, or run into each other, or if they do survive, the wind they create might make no difference at all.

NASA jets flew into Hurricane Earl earlier this year, just to observe the cyclone in action. But, NOAA has been sending aircrafts into cyclones for about thirty years now. In the 1960s and 1970s, NOAA ran "Project Stormfury," dedicated to disrupting the eye of a cyclone, like attacking the engine of a car, with a substance called silver iodide. Inside a cyclone, bands of rain layer from the center (the eye) outward and house super-cooled water. Silver iodide forms ice nuclei with super-cooled water, causing it to freeze. Heat is released when molecules fuse in the freezing process and the rain wall grows, collapsing the cyclone’s eye next door. Good idea. Scientists actually tested the silver iodide method, dropping it in on Hurricane Debby in 1969. The cyclone was weakened, but only temporarily. This all happened before anyone knew that cyclones go through stages of weakening and strengthening naturally, as outer storms replace the inner ones close to the eye. Lesson learned.

So, if we can’t freeze it out, can we dry it up instead? In 2001, Dyn-O-Mat Company patented a water-absorbing substance called Dyn-O-Gel, similar to the stuff used in the absorbent strip of a baby’s diaper. The company suddenly got all pie in the sky about their invention, claiming Dyn-O-Gel could suck the moisture right out of a moving cyclone. "This powder will give you perfect weather every day," said the company spokesperson in Women’s World Magazine. The company actually tested it on live clouds and storms in the Caribbean. The small particles are able to absorb water up to several thousand times their own weight and create a heavy gel when they contact water, and the clouds and thunderstorms tested actually did seem to disappear. But, the study methodology was somewhat questionable (basically, there was no ‘control cloud’ to see if they would have dissipated anyway.) And, Dyn-O-Gel has the same cost-logistical problem as Bill Gates’ water buoys. Dyn-O-Mat’s proposed "2000-to-1 Dyn-O-Gel to water" ratio means that a typical 4,000 square km cyclone would call for 30,000 tons of goop. That much goop would call for 300 heavy-load aircrafts at 100 tons each, dumping their load every two hours. Ridiculous.

Ok. We can’t slow its turning winds, we can’t lower the surface water temperature, we can’t wipe out its eye, and we can’t dry it out. How about we prevent evaporation of the tepid water in the first place. This solution was suggested back in 1966 and again in 2005—just pour some oil or other surfactant around the cyclone, and the water would be trapped below the slick. But, alas, most substances separate into pools and evaporation persists in the spaces in between. Has anyone tried to just cover up the water with plastic wrap?

Now we’re getting desperate. How about--if we really want to control the destructive powers of a cyclone once and for all—nuke the bastard. Every year, it gets mentioned somewhere. Desperation is not pretty, and expensive at $2-10 million per bomb. In fact, the cost of all these heroic efforts--water buoys, tons of silver iodide, gobs of Dyn-O-Gel, farms of phytoplankton--is through the roof. And, none of them promise to stop a cyclone completely, just slow it down. It leaves me wondering, is it cheaper to just rebuild a coastline than prevent it from destruction? Maybe. But, as Katrina proved, our nation can’t even commit to rebuilding after a major disaster.

The one thing that might help move these big, heroic, imaginative ideas into the realm of possible is to develop better predictive technologies. Some are already in the works. A cyclone compass might make it practical to think about towing in 200 instead of 600 cold-water buoys if we know exactly where to drop them. And, the less oil and phytoplankton used, the lower the costs and the more reasonable the idea becomes. In the meantime, predictive meteorology can save lives by providing more notice to an impending coastline evacuation.

So, maybe it’s predictive systems rather than prevention that’s our immediate future. We need to know where cyclones are going to control them, right? It’s all part of Microsoft’s plan to manipulate weather on earth so the AT&T cell signal for the iPhone gets worse and worse. But for now, we have to do something we’re not used to doing: admit we’re dealing with a thing of nature that, with all our technological advances, we just cannot yet control.

Image Credits: Hurricane Isabel from wikimedia commons

About The Author: Casey Rentz is a microbiologist-turned-science journalist living and working in Los Angeles. She freelances for Web, radio, and print. Also, she consults in the communications department of the nonprofit Informed by Nature, writes and illustrates a zine called The Green Box, concocts epic performance art projects, and paints abstract expressionist style works. Casey blogs at Noticing/Science and tweets at @caseyrentz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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