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 1950s President Dwight Eisenhower even appointed a committee to investigate storm modification. By the 1960s the federally backed Project Stormfury took on the task.
In 1947 a Navy plane dropped a payload of dry ice into a hurricane to cool the internal temperature. 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 lawsuits from the newly effected area? Then too there is 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 sold 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.
Thirty-nine years after Stormfury’s demise and 13 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 has not been heard from.
We propose that modification me revisited. Life is filled with inventions that took many tries before working. We know more about the storms than we did in the 1980s and the research tools are infinitely better. The legal issues can be pre-empted 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, but 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 fifty years ago this month 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 piece or whatever else we yearn for. We know that social problems are more difficult to solve than scientific questions but we should be heartened by what science can do. Shouldn’t it be 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 system have a chance to re-grow and we can all face the hurricane season with peace of mind. The joy would be a Category Five.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.