Humanity has had a historic obsession with the idea of controlling weather. In Greek mythology the Gods were responsible for weather conditions. As the sky god Zeus had control over weather, especially rain and lightning. Various American Indians had rituals which they believed had the power to summon rain. During the time of the Vikings, it was believed that Finnish people could control weather. In fact, Vikings would sometimes refuse to take Finns on their seafaring raids. This particular superstition lasted into the twentieth century, when ship crews were somewhat reluctant to accept Finnish sailors. Even now the US, Russia and China, among other nations, practice “cloud seeding” in some regions in a dubious effort to induce rain.
But now scientists have made a breakthrough in man's desire to control the forces of nature and have unveiled plans to weaken hurricanes and steer them off course, to prevent future tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina. The damage done in New Orleans spurred two rival teams of climate experts, one in America and the other in Israel, to speed up their efforts to allow humans to “play God” with the weather.
In one newly developed method, an aircraft would drop soot over the near-freezing cloud that tops a hurricane, causing it to warm up which would reduce wind speed. Computer simulations of the forces at work in the most violent storms have shown that even small changes can significantly affect their paths. In theory this technique could enable scientists to divert hurricanes away from major cities.
But here’s where it gets sticky. Even if we could steer a violent storm away from a metropolitan area and let it take it anger out on a rural area, for example, lawyers warn that purposefully diverting a hurricane could result in multi-billion dollar lawsuits from towns that bear the brunt that nature never intended.
But there is little dissent about the idea of making a violent storm weaker. Moshe Alamaro, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has plans to "paint" the tops of hurricanes black by scattering carbon particles—either soot or black particles from the manufacture of tires—from aircraft flying above the storms. The particles would absorb heat from the sun, leading to changes in the airflows within the storm. Satellites could also heat the cloud tops by beaming microwaves from space.
"If they're done in the right place at the right time they can affect the strength of the hurricane," Mr Alamaro said.
His theory has so far been tested only in computer simulation by Alamaro's colleague, Ross Hoffman. Alamaro explains, "with small changes to this side or that side of the hurricane we can nudge it and change its track. We're starting with computer simulations, then will hopefully experiment on a small weather system."
Last month scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced that they had simulated the effect of sowing clouds with microscopic dust to cool the hurricane's base, also weakening it. The dust would attract water but would form droplets too small to fall as rain. Instead, they would rise and evaporate, cooling hot air at the hurricane base.
In findings presented at a conference in Trieste, Italy, the team led by Daniel Rosenfeld demonstrated that dust dropped into the lower part of Hurricane Katrina would have reduced wind speeds and diverted its course.
The MIT team has now hired a professor of risk management to advise on steps necessary to protect themselves from legal action by communities affected if a hurricane is diverted. It is pressing for changes to US law and for an international treaty to settle possible disputes between neighboring countries.
Alamaro admits, "The social and legal issues are daunting. If a hurricane were coming towards Miami with the potential to cause damage and kill people, and we diverted it, another town or village hit by it would sue us. They'll say the hurricane is no longer an act of God, but that we caused it."
It’s the ultimate catch-22. You may save more lives, but it may be at the expense of others. Even so, the prospect of controlling weather to human advantage is too compelling to ignore. Scientists will continue to work on ways to dominate the heavens, and it’s quite feasible that they’ll eventually do so.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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