Trying to Tame Tornadoes

ByABC News
January 16, 2001, 6:24 PM

Jan. 16 -- The worst one has been clocked at 318 miles an hour. And every year, 1,000 go tearing across America. Nobody can imagine fighting a tornado's power.

Nobody, that is, except physicist Bernard Eastlund. He imagines something roughly akin to Zeus hurling thunderbolts from above except the idea is to stop a tornado before it begins.

"I think we may have no choice but to find a way to control some of these storms," says Eastlund sometime in the near future. Eastlund pictures massive solar-powered satellites in orbit, spotting thunderstorms and blasting them with a finely-aimed beam of microwaves.

The effect would heat up some of the moist air that normally feeds into a funnel cloud, disrupting the air currents that would become a tornado.

"I'm not saying I'm going to do something to a tornado after it's formed," Eastlund further explains, "but I want to snip off the energy that is feeding the formation of the tornado."

Idea May Be Farfetched

But be cautioned: Even Eastlund concedes his idea is way out there. Even with the best supercomputers, scientists cannot fully understand the complex swirl of a twister. And as for a satellite to stop them, can it be safe and reliable?

"Before we convince ourselves that we're smart enough to do something," says Alfred Bedard of NOAA, "we need to be awfully certain that we know what we're doing."

And beyond that, there's a moral question: Is it wise to mess with the power of nature? Eastlund says preventing tornadoes is, at least, worth some study.

"If you're the one facing one, you would like someone to be able to stop it from happening," suggests Eastlund.

Future generations may thank him for trying if his idea does not create a storm far greater than any tornado.