Can We Control the Weather? Maybe

Ancient mariners apparently had it right. A little oil on a stormy sea can calm troubled waters, according to new research out of the University of California, Berkeley.

That reaffirmation of an old proverb could play a significant role in a slightly expanding effort to realize one of humanity's oldest dreams. Instead of just talking about the weather, as Mark Twain once observed, why don't we do something about it?

The Berkeley research is significant because it suggests -- and at this point it only suggests -- that it may be possible to literally take the wind out of hurricanes by simply pouring something like soapy water on the seas in front of an approaching storm.

Even the head of that research program admits he doesn't know if that would really work, but computer modeling indicates it would. And that fits nicely with the work of a few scientists who have been studying ways to change weather patterns to produce more rain in drought stricken areas, more warmth in frigid regions, and take the fury out of hurricanes that cause billions of dollars in damages every year and can claim thousands of lives.

Seeds of Possibilities

Some ideas for modifying the weather are surprisingly simple, but some sound more like Star Wars.

The history of the science of weather modification has been clobbered by the winds of change repeatedly during recent years. As the National Academy of Sciences noted in a recent report, the subject has never really been addressed adequately.

Too many charlatans, too many unrealistic promises, too little scientific scrutiny, and changing attitudes about human impact on the planet have undermined the field.

Yet the Academy noted that our understanding of the weather has improved dramatically in recent years due to technological advances ranging from weather satellites to computer modeling. So just as it had in 1964, in its first such report, the Academy recommended a major, coordinated effort to answer some basic questions before we attempt a large-scale weather modification program.

But that doesn't mean nothing's happening. Cloud seeding programs extend from coast to coast in this country, increasing rainfall in arid regions like west Texas, according to some independent studies. And some countries, including China, have such aggressive programs underway that Beijing has promised clear weather for the 2008 Olympics.

OK, so we can produce a little more rain, although we can't be sure we aren't stealing it from somebody else, but can we really do anything about hurricanes? Could we at least redirect their path away from population centers?

Surprisingly, a number of clear-headed scientists say the answer may be yes, at least eventually.

Model Predictions

Meteorologist Ross Hoffman, vice president of a private atmospheric consulting firm, has been wrestling with that idea for at least 30 years, and he argued last September in Scientific American that it might be easier than we think, once we really know what's going on.

Hoffman thinks we might be able to control the weather by taking advantage of the feature that makes weather so hard to predict. It doesn't take a lot, Hoffman notes, to change an approaching storm.

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.