Why can't science stop hurricanes?

Future Tense for 17, 2007

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

Hurricane Humberto surprised everyone.

Last Wednesday, Sept. 12, Humberto was a tropical storm whipping up waves with 35-mile-per-hour winds in the Gulf of Mexico.

By midnight, Sept. 13, after only 14 hours, Humberto was a Category 1 hurricane. It slammed into Beaumont and Port Arthur in Texas with 85-mile-per-hour winds.

Meteorologists said hurricanes have grown so quickly only four times since 1851 and never before so close to landfall.

Scientists say it's also unusual for a hurricane to start in the Gulf of Mexico. Most form off the coast of Africa and travel for days across the Atlantic, building up energy and power.

In most cases, unlike Humberto, we know these monster storms are coming.

Why can’t science stop hurricanes?

It’s a problem in thermodynamics.

Hurricanes like to form over seawater at about 80 degrees. If you can lower the water temperature by, say, 5 degrees, a hurricane won’t spin up.

Now, I don’t have a degree — no pun intended — in thermodynamics, but I do know how to chill beer for a tailgate party. Simply mix two 10-pound bags of ice with a case of 12-ounce beer cans in a cooler for 45 minutes.

The beer’s temperature drops from about 70 degrees to 40. A thermodynamicist could work this out precisely in calories or BTUs, but my back-of-the-napkin math says 3.3 pounds of ice would drop the beer’s temperature by 5 degrees.

Now imagine an ocean of beer (yes!) 100 miles in diameter and 6 feet deep. That’s 1.3 trillion cubic feet of liquid weighing about 84 trillion pounds — roughly 4.2 trillion cases of beer. To reduce its temperature from 80 to 75 degrees, mix in 122 million tons of ice. That’s literally a mountain of ice cubes; in fact, a cube of ice 1.1 miles on a side. But remember, the ice must be mixed with the beer — er, seawater. How do you quickly spread those cubes over nearly 8,000 square miles — more than 14 counties of Surry’s size — to stop a hurricane?

The science of thermodynamics says it’s possible, but, as a practical matter, the technology just doesn’t exist.

That hasn’t stopped people from trying.

Chris Landsea of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division says at least a half-dozen methods have been considered:

• Seeding them with silver iodide.

• Placing a substance on the ocean surface or in the atmosphere ahead of the storm.

• Nuking them.

• Adding water-absorbing substances.

• Cooling surface waters with icebergs or deep ocean water.

In certain conditions, “seeding” clouds with silver iodide crystals produces rain. NOAA tried using this technique to cool a hurricane’s outlying rainbands and deny energy to the approaching eyewall. “Neat idea,” Landsea said, “but it, in the end, had a fatal flaw.” There simply wasn’t enough energy in the rainbands to make a difference; the storm still pulled its main energy from the sea.

Hurricanes arise over warm water because huge amounts of evaporation create convection. People have suggested spreading something on the ocean to limit evaporation. Beyond finding a way to distribute enough stuff to make a difference, there is the added problem of finding something that stays together in rough seas. One possibility would be large amounts of petroleum — a deliberate oil spill, with all that implies for the environment. A related idea is to burn masses of oil and throw carbon black (soot) into the atmosphere to absorb energy. This idea, too, stinks.

Landsea has a detailed explanation of why a nuclear bomb wouldn’t break up a hurricane (http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/tcfaq/C5c.html). Aside from the fact that the storm wouldn’t notice — a hurricane’s heat release equals a 10-megaton blast every 20 minutes — the fallout would be widespread and deadly.

Dyn-O-Mat Inc. makes a powder that quickly absorbs lots of water and becomes a gooey gel. Someone suggested spreading it into a hurricane to make raindrops heavier and sap the storm’s strength. The Hurricane Research Division analyzed the concept. Landsea uses very big, very fast computers, so I have no reason to doubt him when he says 377 flights by C-5A aircraft carrying 100-ton payloads every 90 minutes still might not spread enough Dyn-O-Gel to make a difference.

I covered the ice idea above. Landsea also notes the problem of towing an iceberg into position fast enough to make a difference, because hurricanes move about 10 miles per hour and sweep over 7,200 square miles a day. As for pumping up cool, deep water to the surface, “Just for the U.S. mainland from Cape Hatteras to Brownsville would mean covering 528,000 square miles of ocean floor with devices,” Landsea says. As for the effect on ocean life from cooling their habitat or turning seawater to fresh, well, would you miss eating shrimp?

“Perhaps someday,” Landsea writes, “somebody will come up with a way to weaken hurricanes artificially. It is a beguiling notion. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do it?

“Perhaps the best solution is not to try to alter or destroy the tropical cyclones, but just learn to co-exist better with them. Since we know that coastal regions are vulnerable to the storms, building codes that can have houses stand up to the force of the tropical cyclones need to be enforced. The people that choose to live in these locations should be willing to shoulder a fair portion of the costs in terms of property insurance — not exorbitant rates, but ones which truly reflect the risk of living in a vulnerable region. In addition, efforts to educate the public on effective preparedness needs to continue. Helping poorer nations in their mitigation efforts can also result in saving countless lives. Finally, we need to continue in our efforts to better understand and observe hurricanes in order to more accurately predict their development, intensification and track.”

Landsea and his co-author, Stan Goldenberg, have a very informative Web site about hurricanes. You can find it at http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd. Start by looking at “Frequently Asked Questions.”

Meanwhile, I'm checking the National Hurricane Center. It's focused on three potential storms in the Atlantic. Whether they become major storms or not, you know we can count on seeing more hurricanes ... in the future.

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/45. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net