News Stories

Can We Change the Weather?

Scientists are trying to find ways to attack hurricanes. Nine jets are planning to fly over southern Florida, each carrying 16,000-330,000 pounds of cloud-busting powder. When sprayed into a wet cloud, this powder combines with the moisture and turns into a heavy gel, which will then fall to the ground, removing the moisture from the cloud. They hope this powder will make hurricane Isidore much weaker. "We just want to take a punch out of a storm so it doesn't level your house," says Peter Cordani, of Dyn-o-Mat, the creator of the powder.

The United States and Russia began seeding clouds with silver iodide 50 years ago to increase local rainfall. The U.S. even used cloud seeding to flood the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam war. But the U.S. government quit trying to change the weather in the 1970s after scientists decided it couldn?t be done. "The problem is the weather changes you try and achieve by cloud seeding or other methods happen naturally all the time," says NOAA?s Hugh Willoughby, "And you can't know the difference."

Last year, during a test, jets sprayed the Dyn-o-Mat powder in the sky and made a small cloud disappear from a Doppler radar screen. "We know it can dissipate a cloud," says meteorologist Peter Ray, who is testing it. "But we don't know what it will do to ice, freezing water and all the other kinds of things you might encounter in a large storm."

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology want to try spreading a thin layer of vegetable oil on the surface of the ocean that would slow down the exchange of air and water, reducing evaporation, thus reducing the velocity of a developing hurricane. Others want to use massive mirrors in space to redirect sunlight and alter weather patterns by heating cool pockets of air.

Meteorologist Ross Hoffman thinks the dream of controlling the weather "is in fact a possibility." The key is learning how to take advantage of the butterfly effect. This refers to the fact that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in Singapore can trigger a chain of events that changes the weather thousands of miles away in New York City. Hoffman's idea is to create an artificial butterfly effect by creating a small change in temperature or humidity in strategic locations to alter the weather great distances away. "Small changes can result in large changes as a storm evolves. We can use that intelligently if we can predict the evolution of a storm. But we're not there yet," he says.

If meteorologists learn how to control the weather, the blame for weather damage may move from Mother Nature to them. Hoffman says, "If you do nothing and there's a horrible weather event, it's an act of God. But if you do something and even make matters a little better, someone may still bear a loss and they're sure to blame you."

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