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Scientists a step closer to steering hurricanes

by Tim Ship­man in Wash­ing­ton
The Dai­ly Tele­graph

Sci­en­tists have made a break­through in man’s desire to con­trol the forces of nature – unveil­ing plans to weak­en hur­ri­canes and steer them off course, to pre­vent tragedies such as Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na.

The dam­age done to New Orleans in 2005 has spurred two rival teams of cli­mate experts, in Amer­i­ca and Israel, to redou­ble their efforts to enable peo­ple to play God with the weath­er.

Under one scheme, air­craft would drop soot into the near-freez­ing cloud at the top of a hur­ri­cane, caus­ing it to warm up and so reduce wind speeds. Com­put­er sim­u­la­tions of the forces at work in the most vio­lent storms have shown that even small changes can affect their paths – enabling them to be divert­ed from major cities.

But the hur­ri­cane mod­i­fiers are fight­ing more than the weath­er. Lawyers warn that divert­ing a hur­ri­cane from one city to save life and prop­er­ty could result in mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar law­suits from towns that bear the brunt instead. Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na caused about $41 bil­lion in dam­age to New Orleans.

Hur­ri­canes form when air warmed over the ocean ris­es to meet the cool upper atmos­phere. The heat turns to kinet­ic ener­gy, pro­duc­ing a spi­ral of wind and rain. The greater the tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences between top and bot­tom, and the nar­row­er the eye of the hur­ri­cane, the faster it blows.

Moshe Ala­maro, of the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy (MIT), told The Sun­day Tele­graph of his plans to “paint” the tops of hur­ri­canes black by scat­ter­ing car­bon par­ti­cles – either soot or black par­ti­cles from the man­u­fac­ture of tyres – from air­craft fly­ing above the storms. The par­ti­cles would absorb heat from the sun, lead­ing to changes in the air­flows with­in the storm. Satel­lites could also heat the cloud tops by beam­ing microwaves from space.

“If they’re done in the right place at the right time they can affect the strength of the hur­ri­cane,” Mr Ala­maro said.

The the­o­ry has so far been test­ed only in com­put­er sim­u­la­tion by Mr Ala­maro’s col­league, Ross Hoff­man. Mr Ala­maro said: “With small changes to this side or that side of the hur­ri­cane we can nudge it and change its track. We’re start­ing with com­put­er sim­u­la­tions, then will hope­ful­ly exper­i­ment on a small weath­er sys­tem.”

Last month sci­en­tists at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem announced that they had sim­u­lat­ed the effect of sow­ing clouds with micro­scop­ic dust to cool the hur­ri­cane’s base, also weak­en­ing it. The dust would attract water but would form droplets too small to fall as rain. Instead, they would rise and evap­o­rate, cool­ing hot air at the hur­ri­cane base.

In find­ings pre­sent­ed at a con­fer­ence in Tri­este, Italy, the team led by Daniel Rosen­feld demon­strat­ed that dust dropped into the low­er part of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na would have reduced wind speeds and divert­ed its course.

The MIT team has now hired a pro­fes­sor of risk man­age­ment to advise on steps nec­es­sary to pro­tect them­selves from legal action by com­mu­ni­ties affect­ed if a hur­ri­cane is divert­ed. It is press­ing for changes to US law and for an inter­na­tion­al treaty to set­tle pos­si­ble dis­putes between neigh­bour­ing coun­tries.

Mr Ala­maro said: “The social and legal issues are daunt­ing. If a hur­ri­cane were com­ing towards Mia­mi with the poten­tial to cause dam­age and kill peo­ple, and we divert­ed it, anoth­er town or vil­lage hit by it would sue us. They’ll say the hur­ri­cane is no longer an act of God, but that we caused it.”


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