Irene gave New York City quite a scare last weekend, and did even worse damage elsewhere in the Northeast. Many scientists believe that with the oceans warming, hurricanes will continue to become more powerful and creep up the East Coast more often in the future. So why haven't those same scientists used their giant brains to figure out a way to stop hurricanes, or at least calm them down a bit? It hasn't been for a lack of trying. Various ideas have been proposed through the years, from coating the ocean's surface with a slick substance to dropping a nuclear bomb into the storm. For decades, the U.S. government, through Project STORMFURY, tried weakening hurricanes by dusting their clouds with silver iodide. Although results were initially encouraging, Hugh Willoughby, the former director of Hurricane Research Division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a paper demonstrating that Storm Fury hadn't actually been effective, and the program shut down. Willoughby now teaches meteorology at Florida International University, and he talked to us today about why we haven't been able to disrupt hurricanes — and why we probably shouldn't even really try.
While there haven't been any successful hurricane-modification proposals to date, which is the one you’ve come across that seemed the most promising?
Well, I liked the atom bomb, just because it would be fun to do. I mean seriously, in my darker moments I think it would be very interesting to explode a twenty-ton hydrogen bomb right in the center of the eye out in the ocean, to see what would happen.
I think the only thing worse than a powerful hurricane is a powerful radioactive hurricane, but maybe that’s just me. Seriously, though.
Years and years ago, just kind of brainstorming, [a retired nuclear power engineer and I] came up with the idea of putting channels out in the gulf stream. So, imagine a box made out of, say, fiberglass, that’s 10 meters on a side, and 140 meters long, and it’s got flotation built into it so it’ll float, at least one end will float. And you’re going to want a lot of these, but let’s think about one for a moment. You put down a heavy anchor in the middle of the gulf stream, and there’s kind of a bridle going down to the anchor so that the buoyant end of the device is constrained to be horizontal at 100 meters below the surface, and when the hurricane comes you release the bridle so that the thing floats up to a 45 degree angle, so colder water comes in at the bottom end, goes up through the channel, and out at the top end. And if you put enough of these things in the Gulf Stream, you could cool off the waters of the Gulf Stream as they flow by Miami and prevent a disaster like Hurricane Andrew. If you spent the money, that would work.
You think that would work?
Oh yeah, unquestionably, you could do this. But let's stop and think about the cost. It’s numbered in the billions of dollars, and it would protect admittedly the most vulnerable fraction of the U.S. coast, but still only a fraction of the coast ... Events like Andrew are two or three times a century, so they’d have to sit around unused most of the time .... [Meanwhile,] for a 5 percent increase in the cost of new construction, you can design a house to survive winds that have a return period certainly more than half a century, and probably a century.
In that case, do you think there’s even a point in trying to stop hurricanes?
Well, I don’t think so. I think what we ought to do is look carefully at the return periods for the really destructive hurricanes and design our building codes where a house is fortified against the storm that comes once every eighty years, say . That’s not really expensive.
So is the problem with past hurricane-modification schemes that they just couldn’t work, or that they would work but they just weren’t cost feasible?
The problem with most of the past schemes — and I’ve thought a lot about this — I think that the people who dream these up see hurricanes on TV, you know, with the Chroma key and the weather guy standing in front of it, and somehow in their minds, the hurricane is about the size of [Weather Channel meteorologist] Rick Knabb's head. Because it is, in the image. And they underestimate the scale of the undertaking to modify a hurricane.
These ideas would have to be translated onto a more massive scale than people realize.
They don't understand the scale. They don't understand the practical, logistical difficulties. They don't understand cost-effectiveness. Or the political difficulties. The thing we learned from STORMFURY is that major environmental engineering has all kinds of political difficulties, and it's not that there are a bunch of troglodytes that are standing in the way of progress. There are downsides to sustaining a program that has to last for decades .... You could have something that was well thought out, supported by the political structure, and before you have a chance to use it, what people think is important might have changed completely, and you'd be defunded before you get a chance to put it into place.
Let's say we came up with the political will. And a cost-effective plan. Could there be unintended environmental consequences to playing with hurricanes?
Twelve thousand years ago, the Gulf Stream shut down ... for about a thousand years. And even though the earth's climate was warming, the high-latitude Northern Hemisphere climate went back to glacial temperatures .... I don't think messing with the Gulf Stream with these channels would do that, but even if the probability was 1 percent, you'd really like to understand that really well before you did something that could have that consequence. Cetyl alcohol is a fairly benign substance, but if you were talking about putting hundreds of thousands of tons of it in the ocean [to prevent evaporation,] you'd want to know a lot more about the biological consequences.
Out of all the proposals you'd heard through the years, which was the most laughable?
Well, of course nukes is right up there, apart from my adolescent fantasies ...
I read one about using enormous windmills to blow hurricanes out to sea?
Yeah that was the one I was — the guy just didn't have any idea of the scale. You couldn't do it ... The people who propose a lot of this stuff just don't understand the basic physics involved.
Let's put on our prediction hat for a moment. One hundred years from now, two hundred years from now, do you think the government will be stopping hurricanes?
Not unless we discover something very strange that we don't know about. Which of course could happen!