We need to try again.
We have wondered this about warts, colds and crabgrass, and now each time a hurricane enters the Gulf of Mexico we ask the same about the storms: “Why can’t they make them go away?”
In fact, “they” have tried. Going back as early as the 1940s, a combination of private businesses, most notably General Electric, and government agencies have experimented with schemes to cool down the disturbances. In the ’50s, President Dwight Eisenhower even appointed a committee to investigate storm modification. By the ’60s the federally backed Project Stormfury took on the task.
In 1947 a Navy plane dropped a payload of dry ice into a hurricane. Later attempts involved a cloud seeding process: Silver iodide, which would convert into ice crystals, was dropped into the swirling storms.
Initially the results were encouraging. Some storms did weaken or turn after the treatment. Subsequent research, however, suggested that wind sheer and other natural forces likely altered the hurricanes and there would have been the same result without the seeding.
Then there were some thorny social and legal issues. What if a seeded hurricane would move from Destination A to Destination B? Would the government be vulnerable to law suits from the newly effected area? Then too, there’s a good side to tropical storms as part of nature’s plan to bring rain to areas badly in need of it.
In 1980, lacking any solid evidence about the effect of seeding, Project Stormfury was cancelled, although the research did at least discover some behavioral techniques in understanding the path of hurricanes.
Twenty-eight years after Stormfury’s demise, and three years after a hurricane that nearly destroyed one of the world’s great cities, and as populations continue to build along coasts, the “they” we were relying on isn’t doing anything.
We propose that seeding be revisited. Life is filled with inventions that took many tries before working. We know more about these storms than we did in the 1980s and the research tools are infinitely better. The legal issues can be preempted by federal liability laws and the rules can be written so that seeding can only take place when the storms are in their infancy and the furthest removed from land.
We have better information systems. We are building better levees. Still, the federal government has to spend billions a year to reclaim and rebuild devastated areas. And no amount of money can compensate for the emotional costs.
From the time that Neil Armstrong first made a giant step for mankind a standard argument for problem solving has been that, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we …?” The blank might be filled with finding a cure for cancer, achieving world peace or whatever else for which we yearn. We know that the social problems are more difficult to solve than the scientific ones but we should be heartened by what science can do. We think it’s time to raise the man on the moon question again about combating tropical disturbances.
We cannot get rid of hurricanes nor should we, but it seems plausible that we can weaken them so that Haitians are not killed by landslides, Cuban and Mexican villages are not wiped away and so that coastal estuary systems have a chance to re-grow and we can all face the season with peace of mind.
The joy would be a Category Five.
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