A look at tornado modification science and conspiracy theories

With the number of destructive and killer tornadoes this year already reaching historic levels thoughts often dwell to the question whether we can subdue the beast through varying approaches for weather control. The same occurred the same occurred following the exceptional onslaught of disastrous hurricanes, including Katrina that struck the U.S. in 2005.

Aside from extreme events, weather modification has been a subject of considerable interest, for example in regard to rain making to alleviate droughts, keeping rain off the Beijing Olympics and snow outside the Moscow city limits. None of these efforts have been convincingly demonstrated to be effective and probably never will (personal opinion).

So what do we know about the much more difficult problem of the subduing tornadoes?

To begin, this post was suggested by Jason in response to comments following his recent post, for example:

Now that these things can be (sorta) predicted & tracked, anyone have ideas on how to quickly & safely collapse /snuff out a tornado? - FIREDRAGON47

I’m sure it won’t be long before some mad scientist comes up with a man-made scheme to weaken or spin down tornadoes... - Jason-CapitalWeatherGang

In reality, some mad, not so mad, and even top flight scientists (and non-scientists) began pondering the possibilities over 60 years ago, and new sets of similarly described individuals have appeared ever since pronouncing they have the sure fire scheme for succeeding.

Before delving further into this discussion, consider: the losses in recent weeks most certainly would have been much greater without benefit of decades of research leading to advances in understanding of the atmospheric conditions contributing to the development, evolution and motion of tornadoes.

Advances in our understanding and forecasting of tornadoes are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. That’s the good news. The bad news is that these advances probably won’t ever be good enough. The question then becomes: “then what?” - for which the answer in several quarters is weather control, often expressed in military parlance something like, kill ‘em before they destroy us.

Methodologies for controlling tornadoes highlighted here fall into two categories: 1) obvious crackpot schemes devoid of consistency with basic science and 2) ones which are seemingly plausible scientifically but are detached form practical consideration of scale in regard to necessary technology, engineering, and, cost. Ironically, some in both categories are derived by adapting some approaches of conspiracy theories, which attribute extreme weather events to sinister agents (government or otherwise) or are approaches designed to subdue naturally occurring extreme weather.

Among the first ideas for developing a system for stopping a tornadoes were presented in 1953 at an American Meteorological Society (AMS) meeting in a paper calling for an “all out war against twisters” based on what were then the new technologies of radar to detect possible tornadoes and guided missiles for seeding the tornado environment with condensation nuclei (dry ice or sliver iodide as used in attempts for rainmaking). The premise was that somehow (not clearly explained) the seeding could weaken the updraft that feeds a tornado or trigger cold downdrafts that would extinguish them “as a stiff breeze extinguishes a candle”.

(Aside: this paper was the first suggestion for building a network of weather radars to detect and track tornadoes similar conceptually at the time for the radar system being developed “spot incoming Soviet bombers”.)

Others argued rightly during the 50s that the possibility of breaking up a tornado was quite remote, pointing out that the energy associated with a tornado is so large that nothing short of a thermonuclear explosion could possibly do the trick. Some notable personages gave this serious consideration, but fortunately wiser heads prevailed. (If not, I can’t help wonder whether school kids like myself would have been warned beforehand to “duck and cover”?)

During the same period some speculated that tornadoes derived their energy from lightning, inspiring the idea that, if one could suppress lightning, then tornadoes would also be suppressed. Coincidentally, programs were underway at the time to suppress lightning with the aim of limiting ignitions of forest fires and damaging other sensitive facilities, such as airports (and nuclear weapons storage facilities). One approach was to reduce the magnitude of the positive and negative charge difference within storm clouds - necessary to generate lightning - by draining the electrical energy through small discharges induced by seeding with “chaf” ( small aluminum strips). Results from tests in actual storms during the 60s were “ambiguous”.

Notwithstanding the less than convincing attempts such as those just mentioned, in 1972 Ted Fujita, the world’s most respected tornado expert (“Mr. Tornado”, and inventor of the Fujita scale) took the idea of controlling tornadoes seriously and expressed hope that further experiments would lead to knowing how to control “real” tornadoes within 10 years (“real” in that while making this statement he was playing with a miniature tornado of swirling water vapor made in his lab).

Also in1972, the director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), Ed Kessler, cautioned that tornado modification was speculative but nevertheless discussed several techniques for doing so in considerable detail. One strategy called for creating artificial convection, “hot spots”, that might release and thus lessen the vertical stability of the atmosphere necessary for severe storm and tornadic development. Such hotspots were hypothesized as being produced by the heat of jet engines affixed to the ground with the exhaust facing upwards.

(Ed was a mentor of mine while a graduate student. I recall discussing with him concerns - which he readily acknowledged - that, while artificial clouds and precipitation above hot spots might suck energy from thunderstorms threatening tornado development, the technique could backfire if the jet engines themselves spawned a tornadic storm. As with all weather modification efforts, this was an inevitable encounter with law of unintended consequences. This and variations of the basic idea were never tested, at least on the record.)

Fast forward now to more recent times, and the approaches for controlling tornadoes that seem to evoke the most buzz mainly (as far as I know) originate in the conspiracy and/or debunk conspiracy oriented blogosphere. These theories verge on bizarre if not just absurd, but are fun to ponder in the same way as a sci-fi flick may capture your imagination.

Perhaps the most prominent conspiracy theory related to extreme weather and tornado modification arose from the Department of Defense High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) (for which planning began in the early 1990s). HAARP began as a research program aimed at exploiting the electrical properties and radiative absorption processes of the ionosphere (upper atmospheric layer extending from about 70 to 300 km) to improve radio communications, especially to submerged submarines. Almost immediately after the HAARP program became known, it became an irresistible magnet attracting scientifically uninformed conspiracy theorists who viewed the project as a secret weapon for weather warfare. (I once heard it referred to as “Weather of Mass Destruction:).

In the conspiracists’ view, the ionosphere was to be exploited as a giant lens for redirecting HAARP’s transmitter beam earthwards to generate hurricanes and tornadoes (as well as earthquakes, tsunamis and, according to some fanatics, chronic fatigue syndrome, mind control, and just about everything else gone wrong with the world. (See also: Angels Don’t Play this Haarp).

The likes of Katrina and the latest round of tornado outbreaks, so the conspiracy theory still goes, were government experiments in made-to-order weather, apparently with no regard to the impacts on for life and property. (I told you this was far out, but the claims such as this are not fictional and seemingly believed by far more than rational individuals could imagine. On the other hand it’s hard to comprehend that so many still believe that President Obama was not born in the U.S. and probably that Bin Laden, like Elvis, is still alive).

Land based system for “whacking” tornadoes: Emergency vehicles would be placed throughout the Midwest. Upon identification of a threatening mesocyclone, they would converge within about a 30 mile radius of the storm and a few hundred such vehicles would beam their energy into the cold rainy downdraft. ((http://www.eastlundscience.com/TORNADOES.html))

Some wiser or more imaginative thinkers have at least thought how the fantastical capabilities to create weather extremes might be reversed by a system like HAARP to eliminate the threats of extreme weather. One such scheme envisions placing large arrays of solar cells on satellites and focusing a beam of energy in the form of microwaves to earth. The idea is to heat a “sensitive region” of a thunderstorm mesocyclone and thereby release the instability that otherwise would lead to formation of a tornado (note the parallel to the “hot spot” concept of Ed Kessler mentioned above). A land-based version of this system has also been proposed.

Even if schemes like this did not violate the laws of physics, were technologically and economically feasible (but are not), keep in mind the inviolate law of unintended consequences, as well as the almost impossible task of convincingly demonstrating that the outcome of any weather modification effort would not have occurred naturally without human intervention.

And, as Walter-inFallsChurch commented on our initial discussions of this topic earlier in the week, “ imagine the moral dilemmas. ...how do we choose which tornadoes to diffuse?”

. . .

Post script: So why bother to consider controlling the much more difficult problem of the subduing tornadoes? To which I reply, why not? It may all be science fiction, but I’ll bet most Capital Weather Gang fans were among the first in line for movies such as The Day After Tomorrow (neat slideshow), and have since probably thought more (or fantasized) about the possibilities and drool in anticipation for the release of Weather Wars in July.

I intend to be the first in line for the local premier of Weather Wars in July – anyone want to try beating me there?