Just after the devastating Joplin tornado outbreak two weeks ago, I was asked and agreed to do an interview for CNN addressing the seemingly timeless question: Can we do anything to control these devastating demonstrations of Mother Nature’s fury, especially of course, when pitted against the people and infrastructure that dares to get in their way?
The interview was motivated by my recent post, Killing killer tornadoes before they strike: Is it possible? What I found most interesting from this experience was less from what was aired than what was not.
The transcript of the broadcast is posted on CNN’s website (about two thirds of the way down the page).
In the screenshot to the right, note the banner at bottom of screen, “CAN WE CHANGE THE WEATHER? Meteorologist: Govt. could come up with the technology in 5 years”. That banner was shown during the attention-grabbing promo (“tease”) by Blitzer introducing the video and remained there through the entire interview. More on the answer – read on...
You might ask, as I wondered at first, why was CNN’s Pentagon correspondent doing the piece on this subject? It turns out Barbara had overheard some Generals asking themselves, after viewing the devastation in Joplin, something to the effect of: why, in this day and age, we can’t stop these killers? That’s akin to the iconic question, if we can get men to the moon, why can’t we …..? Barbara, who it turns out is a big fan of the Capital Weather Gang, had seen my tornado modification post prompting her request to me for an interview.
One always wonders in such circumstances whether the most important points in response to interviewer’s questions and comments will be used and, if so, will they be edited in the relevant context and not misrepresent the interviewee’s intentions? Though much of our interview was cut, I was pleased to see my concerns in this regard were unwarranted thanks to Barbara’s quick grasp of the subject and importance of getting it right.
Blitzer’s introduction to the broadcast video was, “some meteorologists are suggesting there could be a way to stop killer twisters like the one we saw in Joplin, Missouri, potentially, before they happen”. The otherwise unidentified “some meteorologists” were represented (unbeknownst to me at the time of my interview) by Joe Golden. In fact, I had no idea what he had to say until the actual broadcast.
Barbara’s first on-air question was, “amid the tragedy of the recent tornadoes” …”is there anything we can do about the weather?” As edited, Joe answered first stating that, “what we’re talking about in terms of tornado modification is taboo in meteorology. A lot of my scientific colleagues are very reluctant to even talk about it.”
When watching the broadcast I couldn’t help think, as discussed in my previous post, the vast majority of scientists view the topic as “taboo” only because it’s folly to take the possibility seriously. But, before I continue with that thought, Joe continued, “it’s feasible” and later added “stopping tornadoes is serious business.”
Immediately following Joe’s response Barbara said to me: “Now, you have heard in your profession some pretty wacky ideas”, to which I replied, “oh, there are some real crackpot schemes out there, to say the least”. That crackpot reference was not to anything Joe has contemplated, but rather, for example, the proposal I had mentioned about directing high powered microwaves at tornado generating thunderstorm complexes.
The broadcast also brought up Chinese claims (unverified) to have averted rain at the Beijing Olympics by shooting rockets into the sky and Russian attempts to keep winter snow outside of central Moscow. No evidence has ever been provided to substantiate these claims.
Gratifyingly, the shortened version broadcast of the full one hour interview did manage to bring to the fore what I believe are the two most important considerations when addressing the feasibility (other than cost) of any weather modification program:
* First is the virtually overwhelming problem of verifying that the intended result of weather modification would not have occurred in the absence of attempting to control the weather.
* Second is the law of unintended consequences which, because of the chaotic nature of the weather systems and phenomena, essentially precludes knowing with certainty what will actually transpire in response to, for example, cloud seeding, or to any otherwise scientifically plausible and technically feasible approach that might become possible in the indefinite future.
The broadcast interview ended with THE question from Barbara: So can the government change the weather?
By then, my answer to the question was presumably obvious (essentially, forget about it), and only Joe’s response was aired: “I’d say five years at a minimum, we can come up with good technology”. It was from this that the CNN “tease” was derived, but exactly what this answer means remains unclear. However, Barbara wisely commented following the interviews that Joe is in the business (literally) of advocating weather modification.
Joe was a lead in the research program on modifying hurricanes supported by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). NOAA rejected the DHS proposal to partner (“buy into”) with the DHS program.
Upon handing the piece back to Wolf Blitzer, he commented, “Barbara Starr, thank you. Fascinating stuff”.
Hope you all agree!
Not included in the broadcast was a question of whether there are, in fact, any current government programs in weather modification. My response was that to the best not of my knowledge, no, at least in terms of what is available in the public domain.
The military, of course, is very much interested in all things weather and using weather information to its advantage and/or the disadvantage of an adversary, but it’s unlikely weather control is on the table, on or off the record.
To my dismay but not surprise, however, what is not in the public domain is the subject of wild-eyed conspiracy theories, some of which claim the government is purposely testing it’s capabilities by causing the recent rash of tornadoes. In fact, the CNN broadcast evoked considerable ridiculous chatter on some conspiracy web sites (which I’ll not provide to avoid bring attention to them).
Notwithstanding my pessimistic view of weather modification possibilities, as mentioned in the kill tornado post, I still intend to be at least among the first in line for the local premier of the flick, Weather Wars in July.