Could We Ever Stop a Hurricane in Its Tracks?

Could We Ever Stop a Hurricane in Its Tracks?
Illustration: Angelica Alzona/Gizmodo

Neutralising a hurricane as it barrels over the ocean might seem like a dumb idea, but if we refused to indulge seemingly dumb ideas, would we ever have, you know, gone to the Moon, that kind of thing? Yes, hurricanes are unfathomably huge and powerful — but so is, in my opinion, the collective ingenuity of the goddamn human race! And look, we’re really going to need some of that ingenuity given what the climate crisis has in store. As it turns out, per this week’s Giz Asks respondents, there were, as recently as a few decades ago, decidedly mainstream scientists seriously working on this very subject. To learn about their exploits and other adventures in hurricane-obliteration, see below.

Alexandra Anderson Frey

Assistant Professor, Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington

When faced with an overwhelmingly powerful and dangerous force of nature, the first approach is often to look for a definitive and straightforward solution. Unfortunately, the approaches most commonly suggested turn out to be anything but straightforward. Beginning with the basics, a tropical cyclone (it officially becomes a hurricane only once its wind speeds exceed 119 km/h) is a massive, churning, rotating storm that runs on the heat provided by warm tropical oceans, which often results in an especially powerful windy and rainy “eyewall” surrounding a relatively cloud-free “eye” near the centre.

It seems plausible, then, that a hurricane’s circulation could be disrupted with an explosion of sufficient force… until you consider the sheer scale involved. The heat released within a hurricane can be compared to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes, which is an amount of energy that far exceeds the typical annual energy use of the entire human race. Even putting aside the substantial public health issues that would result from frequent nuclear fallout, the logistics involved in expending that much energy multiple times every storm season would be unfathomable.

What about that warm ocean water? Surely if we could eliminate the fuel source, these massive storms would lose their devastating power. Theories have flown around covering everything from churning up cooler, deeper water to towing icebergs from the Arctic to put a damper on that near-surface heat source. Once again, the logistics involved are deeply absurd: NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory estimates that, even to only affect the hurricane’s eyewall region for 24 hours of the hurricane’s lifetime, over 18,648 of ocean would be affected. Taking into account track forecast uncertainty, the cool patch would have to cover over 62,160 . Even if one could find a way to rapidly deploy and drop a large enough ice cube into that particular 24,000-square-mile bowl of soup, the sudden chill’s effect on marine life would be absolutely devastating. Any approach based on cooling the ocean surface is also likely to become even less feasible over time, given the many observations of increasing sea surface temperatures (and climate models’ projections of continued rising).

Attempts have been made in the past to modify hurricanes (see, for instance, Project STORMFURY in the mid-20th century), but the complex dynamics of hurricane growth make it difficult to definitively isolate the outcome of any given experiment; as an example, what seemed to be early “successes” of the some attempts at seeding tropical cyclones turned out to be a coincidentally timed moment of weakening in the hurricane eyewall that is a normal part of its lifecycle (and, often, subsequent intensification!). The focus of organisations like the National Hurricane Centre is then to improve our physical understanding and forecasts of hurricane track and intensity to best aid decision-makers and the public. As for the rest of us, the focus must be on adaptation, mitigation, education, and placing an emphasis on ensuring that those most at risk during adverse weather conditions have access to the resources they need to remain safe.

Phil Klotzbach

Research Scientist, Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, who is responsible for the seasonal Atlantic hurricane forecasts issued during the peak months between August and October

These days, hurricane modification is considered almost a kind of fringe science. But that wasn’t always the case. Starting in 1962, there was a 22-year-long experiment called Project Stormfury, spearheaded by some of the biggest names in hurricane science. It was very mainstream.

The idea behind Project Stormfury was that you’d try to basically seed the outer core clouds in the hurricane, and try to strengthen it, in order to weaken the inner core. But it was hard to gauge how successful these efforts were, because, for one thing, we don’t have a control group — we can’t say, “ok, what if we hadn’t done this — what would have happened?” And say you do seed a hurricane and it does actually work — would the storm have weakened anyway? Would it have weakened more if you’d just left it alone? There’s really no way to know.

Scientists are still at work on this question, but I’m not optimistic. People have talked about trying to cool the water, but that would probably have a massive impact on ocean life, plus you’d have to get the operation up and running days in advance and know exactly where the hurricane was going before it got there.

Hurricanes are large, and they’re extremely powerful, and the amount of energy they generate is just far, far more than we can produce. You’ll recall that our last President suggested nuking a hurricane, but not even a nuclear bomb could compete — you’d just get a hurricane that glows at night.

Hugh Willoughby

Research Professor, Earth, and Environment, Florida International University, whose research focuses on dynamics of hurricane motion, structural evolution, and intensity change

I’m actually the guy that killed Stormfury off. It’s sort of a dubious distinction.

Stormfury was an effort to weaken tropical cyclones. The idea was to seed the hurricane with silver iodide to build a new outer eyewall and reduce the strongest winds in the original inner eyewall. It was the project of a husband and wife team, Joanne and Bob Simpson. Bob Simpson is the man who established the National Hurricane Research Project in the mid-1950s, and all of us in this field are indebted to both of them.

When I was in the Navy, I’d flown recon over the Pacific; I knew what the radar signature of a non-modified concentric eyewall cycle looked like. Eventually I wound up at the Hurricane Division, where I noticed that the hurricanes modified by Project Stormfury — the ones seeded with iodine — behaved the same way as the unmodified ones I’d seen when I was over the Pacific. Some colleagues and I put together a paper that made a good case that what the Simpsons thought they’d done with Stormfury was actually the result of natural variation.

Usually, in the sciences, a contention like that would be controversial — debate about it would linger for years. But our paper pretty much ended the conversation. Joanne was a very fiery person, and she never forgave me. Which is a shame, because I was a great admirer of hers.

Daniel Ethan Horton

Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Head of the Climate Change Research Group Northwestern University

Due to the geometry of the Earth-Sun relationship, Earth receives the majority of incoming solar radiation (sunlight) in its lower latitudes, i.e., the tropics. Due to this unequal distribution of sunlight, the tropics are warmer than the higher latitudes. Earth’s climate system redistributes tropical heat to higher latitudes via ocean and air currents. Amongst the various processes that help redistribute this heat are tropical cyclones, a.k.a. hurricanes and typhoons. The redistribution of heat from low to high latitudes is a rather key feature in the determination of regional climates and global circulation patterns. Given the role that tropical cyclones play in this process, it seems unwise to stop hurricanes in their tracks, or reduce their strength.

From a global redistribution of heat perspective, perhaps a “safer” goal would be to shift the tracks of tropical cyclones to limit their interaction with land and therefore humans and human-built infrastructure. However, the power and scale of tropical cyclones are immense, and therefore our ability to engineer a shift in their intended course is questionable. A somewhat analogous example of the challenge of shifting storms tracks can be found in the midlatitudes, where anthropogenic climate change could shift the midaltitude storm tracks slightly poleward in some regions — a rather modest change for a once unintentional but now on-going 150-year climate engineering “experiment.”