We’re living in a moment when "extreme weather" dominates the news and our lives, from the recent wall-to-wall coverage of winter storm Nemo to the true devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Into all this (sometimes reasonable) hysteria, former Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie has launched Hacking the Planet, a Weather Channel show that explains some of the meteorological interventions scientists are exploring to lessen the impact of, and in some cases even prevent, catastrophic weather events.
Though global warming is an undeniable threat, and weather coverage has been amped up with thousands of people tweeting photos of hurricane-damaged areas, "The weather has always been of profound interest to people," Rennie explains. "There’s the immediate question of whether it will mess up your commute, and of course the long-term planning about what we need to protect our homes and communities." The impact of extreme weather may seem more intense lately, but Rennie says that’s in part because we’ve moved into the path of natural disasters by building more communities in tornado alley and on hurricane-prone shorelines.
Some of the interventions on Hacking the Planet sound impossibly far-fetched and futuristic—can you really change the course of a hurricane?—but Rennie says that some of the storm advances may take place in our lifetimes. Here, Rennie discusses some of the craziest solutions to weather disasters, how plausible each of those solutions may be and the unintended consequences of monkeying with Mother Nature.
The hacks about predictions or protective measures are the ones that are most likely to happen in our lifetimes. For example, tornadoes are hugely unpredictable. That’s why they’re such a threat. They follow erratic courses and a funnel cloud can form anywhere in the associated storm system. So scientists are studying the storm systems that give rise to tornadoes, and it’s not unrealistic that we could start to know more and more refined, precise things about a tornado’s path. Rather than saying an entire county is under a warning, we can narrow it down to a much smaller area.
There are engineers who are raising the question about whether it would be possible to create certain kinds of very powerful walls oriented in a certain way that could reduce some of the wind damage from tornadoes. They’re testing those ideas, and if it tests out, there’s nothing that would prevent us from trying to construct really powerful walls in certain communities.
But it’s not clear if it’s a step that’s worth taking. With tornadoes, it’s a really important question to ask, given that even when tornadoes are commonplace, it can be a very, very long time—a couple of thousand years even—for one spot to be hit by a tornado a second time. How much sense does it make to invest in an enormous amount of protection that is so localized? Maybe the smartest thing is not to create the wall but to warn people to get out of an area.
A hurricane is such a gigantic weather system that you might think it would be more difficult to manipulate than say, tornadoes, which are much smaller. But by virtue of being so big and relatively slow moving, you can predict what its trajectory would be more effectively than with tornadoes. If you can conquer the two big problems with a hurricane—scale and timing—you could be able to manipulate them. Hurricanes are very big, so if you want to start to try to reduce the heat in it, you have to talk about manipulating a very big expanse of ocean or portion of the sky, and you might not have very much time to get the tools you need in place.
I think that maybe the most practical of all these ideas for hurricane mitigation is this idea that [atmospheric scientist] John Latham and others have talked about—to use a fleet of robotic crafts that would be moving out ahead of a hurricane that would send ocean spray up into the sky that would draw the heat out of that approaching system.
Alan Blumberg at the Stevens Institute also had the idea for these pumps. They’re passively powered pumps, and you can have them sitting out in the ocean doing nothing, unless the big waves associated with hurricanes start coming in. Then the pumps start churning out very cold water and bringing it to the surface. If you have 200,000 of them, and you distribute them over 60 square miles where the hurricane’s eye would be moving, you might have a very real change of being able to weaken a hurricane, from a category 5 storm, to a 4 or 3. Those are very big what ifs, but they’re ones imposed by the level of our own technology and the economics of the situation.
Alan Blumberg’s idea won’t be able to happen in my lifetime, but is it something for people to do a century or two from now? That’s a much harder thing to say.
There’s an extent to which, as our tech improves, and the science improves, we can even start using weather to our advantage. Like using lightning—you can draw it down to certain collectors and try to collect that tremendous electrical energy and store it, and then use it as part of our power grid. It would be interesting to see if that could work. There’s another kind of a far-out idea— generating our own man-made tornado-type effect to be able to tap into potential energy that is in the upper atmosphere.
On the show, we’re trying to pay a lot of attention not just to how could we do these things, but also whether we should. If I use cloud seeding to make it rain on my fields, and you are down wind of me, can you make an argument that I’ve stolen your rain?
It’s one thing as a dispute among individuals, but the stakes get much bigger when it’s what whole states or countries may be doing in the future. One country can manipulate the weather and other countries feel harmed by that. That was a problem back in the early '60s. Fidel Castro was convinced that the U.S. government had this very early hurricane manipulation experiment called Project Stormfury,, and he was convinced we would start lobbing hurricanes towards Cuba. Of course, we couldn’t do that. But it will be very interesting to see if we’ll see countries brought to war about choices they’re making [down the road].
Even with something like a hurricane, which we think of as completely destructive forces, they do a lot of stuff to help create some sorts of environments that are beneficial. Nature uses hurricanes to accomplish things. They have a creative role in nature rather than a purely destructive one, and if we talk about trying to move them, stop them, or reduce them, we have to be prepared to deal with that.