Can We Control the Weather? Maybe

Despite the complexity of weather systems, just a slight change in input from one variable -- like sea water temperature -- can have a dramatic impact down the line. Hoffman and his colleagues have been studying two hurricanes that struck in 1992, including Iniki, that killed several persons and cause extensive damage to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and Andrew, which devastated south Florida.

They fed data about the storms into their computers, and then tweaked it just a tad to see what kind of an effect a small change might make. With just a little bit of juggling in their computer model, they say, Iniki changed its course and its strongest winds passed safely to the west of the Garden Isle. They also spared south Florida from Andrew's worst fury.

Two important findings came out of that research. If you want to take charge of a hurricane, get there early and pay particular attention to starting temperatures and winds. Just a slight change in sea temperatures, for example, made a big difference.

How to Handle Hurricanes?

But back to the real world. How do you do that, considering the huge region that is required for a hurricane to form?

Hoffman sees a couple of potential solutions, but one sounds a little far out. A "vast array of Earth-orbiting solar power stations" could beam microwave energy down to Earth, modifying temperatures both in the atmosphere and in the sea to meet our needs. That could literally take the wind out of a hurricane, but Hoffman admits that's a really ambitious concept.

Another approach brings us back to those ancient mariners. Evaporation from the sea provides the fuel that powers a developing storm, so if you can reduce evaporation, you lower the energy available to the storm, thus weakening the system.

One way to do that, he writes, is to "directly limit the availability of energy by coating the ocean surface with a thin film of biodegradable oil that slows evaporation."

Meanwhile, over at Berkeley, scientists have been using computer modeling to study turbulence and they have found an interesting link between stormy seas and high winds. The wind sweeps up droplets of water and suspends them in the air. That layer of wet air acts as a lubricant, according to the model, thus allowing winds to pick up speed.

The way to reduce that effect, says mathematician Alexandre Chorin, who developed the model, is to reduce the size of the water droplets. That's what those old seamen were doing, whether they knew it or not.

So it may be possible for a fleet of aircraft to spray the ocean with some harmless material, like soapy water, to deprive the winds of the energy they need to reach hurricane status.

"It's a cute and natural idea," says Chorin, who is also a senior scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, but he admits he has "absolutely no idea" if it would really work.

But there's another question waiting in the wings. If we really can take charge of the weather, should we?

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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