A small company in Manhattan Beach, Calif., called Solaren, has applied for a patent for its "invention" that company officials say could do just that. But a patent at this point is merely an effort to protect intellectual property rights, and it doesn't mean we can forget about hurricanes in the future.
Solaren gets some attention, though. It has signed a contract to produce the first orbiting solar power plant, with which it hopes to collect solar energy in space where the sun is always shining and beam it back to Earth.
Its partner in that effort is the northern California utility giant, PG&E.
Orbiting solar power plants may be a step toward manipulating hurricanes, but experts seriously doubt such a plan would work. The National Hurricane Center has received so many calls about this and similar plans to control hurricanes that it forwarded a canned statement from Chris Landsea, a scientist with the organization.
"As carefully reasoned as some of these suggestions are, they all share the same shortcoming: They fail to appreciate the size and power of tropical cyclones," Landsea said. He adds that the kinetic energy of the wind at any instant in a major hurricane is "equivalent to that released by a nuclear warhead."
The federal government tried its own hand at modifying hurricanes 40 years ago, which helps explain its skepticism. Project Stormfury seeded clouds just outside the eyewall of four hurricanes from 1961 to 1971 to see if a secondary storm could draw energy away from the twister. It didn't work, partly because scientists didn't fully understand the dynamics of a hurricane.
So for now, hurricane manipulation is beyond our control, but what about global warming, a potentially greater long-term problem? Is it possible we could take control of the atmosphere that we've damaged so severely?
Here's an idea that Dyson should like. In 2006, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen proposed shooting sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect some of the sun's energy away from Earth, thus mitigating global warming. Nature has already done that. Major volcanic eruptions pollute the sky so much that they can temporarily reduce global temperatures, so why not put a bunch more stuff up there and ignore the damage we've already caused?
The University of East Anglia took a look at all the "schemes" that have been proposed to lessen global warming, and concluded that "stratospheric aerosol injections and sunshades in space have by far the greatest potential to cool the climate by 2050, but also carry the greatest risk."
Injecting sulfur or other manufactured particles into the stratosphere could bring the climate back to pre-industrial levels, but if for any reason the process was stopped, Earth would immediately turn into an oven, the researchers concluded.
Incidentally, Crutzen has since suggested that he didn't expect policymakers to take his idea seriously. He just wanted to "startle" them, he told a reporter during a climate conference in Kenya, and get them to think more seriously about geo-engineering.