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Can Hurricanes Be Controlled?

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

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hurricane formation

A budding hurricane. Credit: David Fierstein

Everyone likes to talk about the weather, and maybe someone could do something about it someday. From the dances and prayers of the past, we get to the weather-modification technology of the 24th century (at least, that’s what I recall from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Controlling cyclones is an effort entirely different from, say, making it rain. A storm as massive as Hurricane Irene would seem to defy any attempts by mere mortals to deflect it. Yet the idea isn’t as farfetched as it might seem, thanks to chaos theory.

Ross N. Hoffman, a principal scientist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Lexington, Mass., described in the October 2004 issue (sorry, pay wall) of Scientific American how models showed it was indeed possible to re-route storms. Being chaotic systems, hurricanes are highly sensitive to initial conditions, so adjusting humidity or temperature could be enough, as the storms grows, to send them away from sensitive areas.

Here’s how Hoffman described what he found in a simulation of the Hurricane Iniki, a 1992 storm that was the most powerful ever to hit the Hawaiian islands:

The most significant modifications proved to be in the starting temperatures and winds. Typical temperature adjustments across the grid were mere tenths of a degree, but the most notable change—an increase of nearly two degrees Celsius—occurred in the lowest model layer west of the storm center. The calculations yielded wind-speed alterations of two or three miles per hour. In a few locations, though, the velocities changed by as much as 20 mph because of minor redirections of the winds near the storm’s center.

Although the original and altered versions of Hurricane Iniki looked nearly identical in structure, the changes in the key variables were large enough that the latter veered off to the west for the first six hours of the simulation and then traveled due north, so that Kauai escaped the storm’s most damaging winds. The relatively small, artificial alterations to the storm’s initial conditions had propagated through the complex set of nonlinear equations that simulated the storm to result in the desired relocation after six hours. This run gave us confidence that we were on the right path to determining the changes needed to modify real hurricanes.

Of course, just how to change those initial conditions is another matter. Proposals abound, including one that made headlines in 2009 because the patent holders included Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The key is to change the ocean’s local surface temperature, say, by pumping up deep, cold water or using giant plastic tubes to help mix the ocean layers. Other ideas appear in the graphic below, from Hoffman’s article.

Thinking that humans can manipulate nature in this way seems hubristic. But considering the danger from hurricanes and the enormous costs they exact, it may be worth a try.

Theoretical techniques include seeding to cause rain, controlling evaporation with a biodegradeable oil slick and heating from orbit. Credit: David Fierstein


Philip Yam About the Author: Philip Yam is the managing editor of He is the author of The Pathological Protein: Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting and Other Prion Diseases. Follow on Twitter @philipyam.

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

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  1. 1. priddseren 12:20 am 08/26/2011

    Wow, more computer models predicting stuff. As interesting as the concept is, lets leave it alone. We already have some people claiming humans have caused global warming, and these global warmists want to fool around with the climate even more than it supposedly is now. So more human meddling with the climate to move a hurricane is hardly going to be helpful.

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  2. 2. mlbbchbill 7:45 am 08/26/2011

    so a 450 mile wide oil slick? right…

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  3. 3. jbairddo 8:15 am 08/26/2011

    Hurricanes worse with global temp increase, which means more energetic, hence aren’t hurricanes releasing energy of climate change? Would not dispersing them then add to increasing temps? Just kind of makes sense. Screwing with the deep ocean currents which experts seem to think is most at risk with increasing sea temps and a catastrophe waiting to happen with out this intervention seems like a really bad idea. It may be the last good idea man had was a sewage system.

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  4. 4. David51 9:21 am 08/26/2011

    So we could, as is described in the article, cause Hurricane Irene to first turn west across Florida and then north into Louisiana, thus saving the Northeast the bother and expense of a storm? What a great idea! I wonder, though, what the residents of Florida and Louisiana would think? How about if we sent it back south into the Caribbean. Haitians and Cubans are far away and don’t speak English, so we won’t have to listen to their complaints at all.

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  5. 5. jgrosay 12:31 pm 08/27/2011

    It seems that in the fifties, somebody had the idea of seeding the hot chimney that gives strenght to the hurricane with silver compounds, to stimulate rainfall and cool the chimney. Am I right ? Anybody with additional information on the subject ?

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  6. 6. Tim Johnson 8:31 pm 04/29/2012

    I cannot speak to the side effects of forcing cool water to the hot surface from the ocean depths, but those obviously would need to be weighed against the benefits of a working system, which does not exist in proven form now, nor can I predict the gain or loss in heat in the oceans or atmosphere resulting from doing this. I cannot predict the biological consequences of doing this, either, but I can say that the advance in human knowledge and control over these factors seems entirely desirable to me, in the light of the fact that we will now err on the side of caution, or, more likely do nothing. Environmental research prior to deployment of any working system would go a long way toward preventing any man-caused disaster from a new method carelessly applied.
    I have invented a system which, in an as yet unpublished variation on a pending patent for an ocean current driven generating system (11/823,292, Carriage Wheel Ocean Turbine filed June 27,2007), will force cold water from the depths in a column. This would not only be much more effective at cooling the surface of the ocean but would leave the area below the thermocline relatively unaffected, and slightly drop the level at which the thermocline would settle. The mixed levels above the thermocline would be more effected. These effects can be studied on a small scale before any deployment. My machines would be positively buoyant, ballasted to very slight positivity with self-sloughing ballasts, and tethered by cables to the ocean floor, which is quite deep off the west coast of Africa. I believe that such a system would cool the surface of the ocean without interfering with surface navigation.
    I am seeking an interested party to pursue miniature prototype development and testing for this as well as for what was put forth in 2007 as the primary use of a similar machine, electrical power generation.

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