October 2009 Issue [Miscellany]
The quest to control hurricanes
by Rivka Galchen,
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Or maybe stronger and more destructive hurricanes don’t exist. As is the admirable way with science, arguments still abound over just how to read the data, how to understand the holes in the data, etc. But an expectation of future superhurricanes is the way the scientific community is leaning, and research published in the August 3 issue of Nature shows that the frequency of Atlantic hurricanes at present is greater than at any other time in the past millennium.
Sort of. One of the scientific “wins” rescued from the operational failure of STORMFURY was learning precisely this about hurricane anatomy—the surprising absence of supercooled water. Joanne Simpson, STORMFURY’s project leader and the grande dame of the field, has said that she herself was never interested in actually changing the course of hurricanes; she viewed the project as a way to learn more about storms as they are.
In an interesting environmental twist, algal blooms are what James Lovelock—independent scientist and father of the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that we think of Earth as a superorganism, one currently suffering from “primatemia”—wants to produce, also by pumping water to the sea’s surface. The algal blooms would absorb CO2 and also release a chemical, dimethyl sulfide, that is known to aid the formation of sunlight-reflecting clouds. It would make for an overcast sky and pea-soupy ocean, but it would be compatible with human life as we know it, more or less. Lovelock’s forecast for global warming is one of the most dire, which is likely why he supports such a radical experiment; he also supports nuclear power to eliminate our carbon emissions, and when asked about the complications of nuclear waste, he notes that the areas around Chernobyl are among the most bio-diverse on the planet, because radiation causes the flora and fauna fewer problems than does the presence of humans.
Already a similar kind of pump is being used to help coral reefs, whose delicate equilibria have been severely unbalanced by rising surface temperatures. Ginis told me he’d heard of an experiment in Hawaii that had set out to study the effects Kithil pumps might have on sea-surface biology; the pumps promptly failed or sank irretrievably to the ocean floor.