Two scientists think they may have found a way to weaken, slow down and even change the direction of hurricanes.
If it works, the method could be used to divert powerful storms from hitting large cities — but could also create its own maelstrom of problems.
Using computer simulations, Boston-area researchers Moshe Alamaro and Ross N. Hoffman hypothesize that a large amount of soot or pulverized black rubber dumped into a hurricane's eye would quickly disperse around the storm's chilly upper layer.
The black particles would soak up the sunshine beating down on the top of the clouds, heating up the upper part of the hurricane and reducing the temperature difference between the warm ocean surface and cold air that powers it.
That in turn would slow down the storm's powerful winds, reducing its movement forward and possibly throwing the entire system off course.
"Several hundred tons of soot per hour would need to be dropped into the storm" for most of a day, Alamaro, until recently a researcher at MIT's MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, explains. "Large cargo planes can carry about 125 tons each, so two sorties an hour could be enough."
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The concept of weakening powerful storms isn't new.
The U.S. government tried to quell hurricanes using silver iodide dust, once commonly used in cloud seeding, in a 20-year series of experiments called Project Stormfury. The attempts were abandoned in 1983.
Alamaro believes he and Hoffman have the key to succeeding where others have failed.
"Stormfury tried to induce freezing of water droplets to cause rain," Alamaro says. "This is warming the storm, the opposite approach."
Hoffman, a vice president at the Lexington, Mass.-based meteorological consultancy Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc., has used chaos theory and computer models to show that even small changes to a hurricane's winds can throw it off course.
The question then becomes whether a storm can be controlled to go in a certain direction.
"We hope to develop the steering technology," says Alamaro. "We need to make it certain to hit one area instead of another, so that we can have the option of evacuating 2,000 people instead of a million, for example."
The possibility that future generations could literally learn to wrangle hurricanes could have unspeakable economic, social and political implications.
It could mean, for example, that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina could be controlled, redirected or even averted altogether.
This gets Alamaro into uncharted legal territory.
Hurricanes are considered acts of God, where no one individual or nation is to blame. If humans learn to bring them under control, storms suddenly become an issue of liability.
Alamaro has an answer for that, too.
"We would like to introduce legislation to protect us from that," he says. "Say if you steered a hurricane so that instead of 100 people being dead, two people are dead — somebody would blame us."
But storm steering can have a massive geo-political impact. Any nation capable of harnessing and directing storms suddenly would have control of where storms touch down.
It wouldn't take a big change of direction to steer an Eastern Seaboard hurricane out to sea, but if a storm's in the nearly landlocked Gulf of Mexico, it's going to make landfall somewhere.
"You don't want Mexico to complain that the U.S. steered the rain toward or away from it," Alamaro says. "You'd need to have an international committee to settle the issue."
However, he takes care to mention that all research so far has taken place only on computer simulations.
"This isn't something that's going to happen next summer," Alamaro cautions. "It might be that we find it doesn't work, but even then, perhaps it will give us insight into something else."