One Researcher's Plan: Fight Storms With Storms

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005

Moshe Alamaro has a modest proposal. Get a fleet of ocean barges and mount 10 or 20 jet engines -- tails up -- on each one. Fill the barges with aviation fuel and tow them into the path of an oncoming hurricane. Light off the jets.

If everything goes as planned, the jets will trigger small tropical storms, "like backfires," Alamaro says, marginally lowering the surface ocean temperature and depriving the real hurricane of energy as it gets closer to shore.

Less energy means less power, and less power can turn tigers like hurricanes Katrina and Rita into relative pussycats.

It is not clear how much support Alamaro has for his concept, which he defines as a "salient" that outdistances conventional thinking "by leaps and springs." But his zeal highlights the increased interest of scientists and laypeople alike in finding something -- anything -- to avoid another 2005.

A solution, unfortunately, does not loom on the horizon. Improved weather forecasting and the advent of satellite imagery have made the paths and dimensions of hurricanes much more predictable, but greater knowledge, while helpful, does not solve the problem. Hurricanes, as old boxers might say, are like fighting Sugar Ray Robinson: You know you're going to get hit, but there's still nothing you can do about it.

"I will go out on a limb and say, eventually, we will accomplish this," said Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But by "this," Emanuel means "disaster avoidance, rather than weather control."

The trick is to introduce a "perturbation" in a hurricane -- a variation in moisture, wind speed, temperature or pressure -- so that the hurricane weakens or veers out to sea. The strategy uses the principle that a small, early change in a complex "chaotic" system such as a hurricane can have large, and benign, effects later on.

Alamaro's "free jet" plan is designed to create a temperature perturbation. He said he could test the concept -- in a remote part of the Pacific and in the hurricane off-season -- for about $10 million, by using junker jet engines from mothballed B-52s in Arizona.

"We have the jets and the barge, but we don't have knowledge about the effects and we don't have the knowledge about hurricanes," Alamaro said in a telephone interview. "A test would entice the necessary studies to make it feasible."

Perhaps. Alamaro, a research affiliate at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology, outlined his strategy at this year's annual meeting of the Weather Modification Association, amid "a lot of commotion."

This, in part, was because atmospheric scientists are skittish, Alamaro said: "They know that weather modification would give an unbelievable boost to atmospheric science, but they don't want to support it because of the stigma that it is some sort of black art."

This is true, said J. Greg Glenn, a civilian who studies weather modification at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base, and who is interested in enlisting Alamaro in a hurricane-mitigation project: "This isn't going to go away as junk science," he said. Glenn is not as interested in Alamaro's free jets as in an idea promoted by Emanuel: spraying a "monolayer film" on the ocean in front of a hurricane to inhibit the storm's ability to pick up heat energy and moisture from the sea surface.

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