Two New Jersey scientists believe they may have found a way to tame hurricanes.
Their concept would take some of the punch out of hurricanes by cooling a vast area of the ocean ahead of a storm, depriving it of fuel and sparing lives and property along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Their idea, using millions of pumps, stems from the knowledge that only a few degrees can spell the difference between a tropical storm that dumps a lot of rain, and a killer hurricane with downpours, punishing winds and damaging surf. The warmer the ocean below a gathering storm, the more power it will pack.
While other experts caution that the vast scope and power of hurricanes make them an unlikely beast to be tamed, one of the New Jersey scientists, Professor Alan F. Blumberg of Stevens Institute of Technology, said the toll caused by Hurricane Katrina last year makes it worth trying.
“The really troubling thing to me is that it could happen any day,” Blumberg said, as Chris, the third named storm of the 2006 hurricane season, churned across the Atlantic Ocean.
Blumberg believes global warming will produce stronger hurricanes, making it even more important for scientists to find ways to reduce a storm’s power.
The billion-dollar concept that he and Princeton University Professor George L. Mellor are advancing is based on a principle that researchers discovered decades ago: A storm weakens when it passes over cooler water. Cooler water is available several hundred feet below the ocean surface.
They suggest deploying an array of 1.6 million wave- or wind-powered pumps. The pumps would be placed 200 miles offshore in the path of a storm and spread over an area twice the size of New Jersey. The pumps, comprised of tubes perhaps 3 feet wide and 400 feet long, would be put in position just 24 hours before landfall, when the storm’s direction is somewhat established.
By bringing cooler water to the surface, the pumps could reduce the temperature of the top layer of the ocean by about 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, the scientists calculate, which would cut the strength of a hurricane by about one category.
“That translates directly into a very large reduction in the damages expected from a hurricane,” Blumberg wrote.
Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it ravaged New Orleans. Category 5 storms are the most severe.
The team, however, has yet to secure the $1 million to $3 million for the first step, to test small versions of the pumps at the Stevens wave tank, a renowned 310-foot-long indoor research pool.
One reason for a lack of money is that government funding for weather modification evaporated almost 30 years ago in favor of grants to improve forecasting.
Yet to be considered is how the pumps would be quickly spread over the ocean, and the environmental impact from transferring billions of gallons of water — along with fish and other creatures — from 400 feet under the sea to the surface.
The total cost could be about $1 billion, which Blumberg argued is small when compared to the loss of life and property last year caused by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Katrina alone was blamed for more than 1,500 deaths and tens of billions of damage in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Scientists not involved in the cooling project said they found the idea intriguing but daunting.
“In terms of theory, there is no question that the scheme would work,” said Hugh Willoughby, the former director of the Hurricane Research Division at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. But he noted it will be difficult to design the pumps and to deploy them in rough waters.
The concept deserves a serious test at sea, said Willoughby, now a professor at Florida International University in Miami.
A sea test would demonstrate, for example, if the cooler water spreads out or just sinks, since it is heavier than warmer water, Willoughby said.
Michael Garstang, a tropical meteorologist and professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, also would like to see the project get money.
“There certainly is a moral imperative that such a proposal be funded,” because of the high cost of hurricanes, Garstang said.
He chaired a 2003 report to the National Academies of Science that found a lack of support for weather modification research has hampered insight into storm system behavior.
Calling global warming “inadvertent weather modification,” Garstang said, “It’s quite paradoxical that large amounts of money are spent on global warming research, and almost nothing on weather modification research.”
Other methods to produce cooler water have been proposed over the years, although generally not by scientists with the credentials of Blumberg and Mellor.
One example: Towing icebergs into the storm’s path.
“All these suggestions generally share the same shortcomings: They fail to appreciate the size and power of tropical cyclones,” said Frank Lepore, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. If they grow into hurricanes, they are typically 200 to 300 miles in diameter and comprise a million cubic miles of atmosphere, he said.
Weather modification, if possible, also carries the risk of unintended consequences, Lepore said. “You certainly wouldn’t want to cause these things to go careening off their course and into another country,” he said.