Taming a Tempest

Meteorologists may have been uncertain about the causes of hurricanes and the circumstances under which they strengthened, but that did not discourage people outside the discipline from making recommendations on ways to reduce the severity of hurricanes. Some people viewed the atomic bomb as the answer to controlling hurricanes. The power of the bomb, they thought, should be enough to offset the power of the hurricane. A nuclear weapon detonated within a nascent hurricane would sufficiently disrupt its structure, causing the storm to dissipate. The nuclear weapon-as-hur-ricane-buster theory had some serious problems. First, the average hurricane stores considerably more energy than a nuclear bomb. Second, once the bomb exploded, the radioactivity associated with the blast would then be blown around with the storm's wind and fall out of the sky with the storm's rain. The hurricane, which would cause a few days of mayhem, would be turned into long-term environmental disaster.

Another idea at the time, which resurfaces periodically, was to pour oil over the surface of the ocean under the offending hurricane. Proponents of this method pointed to the requirement for moisture to be evaporated from the sea surface in order to feed the large cloud system associated with the hurricane. The method had problems: It would require a huge amount of oil, the oil slick would not remain one coherent mass in rough seas, and the oil slick would create a huge ecological disaster.

Vladimir Zworykin, concerned with weather control as well as numerical weather prediction, suggested to Weather Bureau personnel that they float the oil on the sea surface and then ignite it to make a giant fire under the hurricane. He had concluded that the burning oil slick would pull heat energy away from the tropical system, thus causing it to dissipate quickly. The Weather Bureau declined to give Zworykin's method a try.

There was one serious attempt to control hurricanes during this decade. The General Electric team, fresh from its triumph of seeding clouds in Massachusetts, decided to drop 200 pounds (90 kg) of dry ice onto an Atlantic hurricane in October 1947. Instead of dissipating, the hurricane made a hard right turn and struck Savannah, Georgia. Although the dry ice actually had nothing to do with the hurricane's track change, scientists knew so little about hurricane steering at the time that many people assumed that the seeding had caused the hurricane to change course. Savannah's residents were furious and General Electric's lawyers prohibited Langmuir's group from making any more seeding runs without company permission. Attempts to tame hurricanes would be put aside until the 1960s.

turned the idea that hurricanes stopped intensifying after a certain point in their life. Meteorologists found out that hurricanes could alternately strengthen and weaken throughout their life cycle.

By the end of the decade, researchers had determined that the sea surface temperature had to remain above 78.8°F (26°C) in order for tropical systems to stay alive. In the presence of too much vertical shear, which prevents air from flowing out the top of the hurricane, the tropical system falls apart.

Tropical meteorologists, aided by advances in radar, the addition of numerous surface and upper-air stations throughout the Tropics, and the availability of weather reconnaissance aircraft, made significant discoveries about tropical systems during the 1940s. Forecasting the movement of these large, violent, and complex systems has remained a difficult problem despite the use of satellites and high-speed computers.

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