Since the dawn of time, man has felt the deadly effects of storms. From legends of the sunken city of Atlantis to the real-world devastation of hurricanes like Katrina and Irma, it would make sense that humankind would consider ways of stopping these catastrophic weather events from happening. There is no shortage of schemes and plots to stop hurricanes from wreaking havoc.
Toss an Iceberg In
While meteorologists admit that we still have a lot to learn about the inner workings of hurricanes and typhoons, they know that warm water is like fuel for these storms. To combat the warm waters underneath a hurricane, many have suggested towing an iceberg into the center of a storm.
While no one has attempted to haul an iceberg from the cold Arctic to the sweltering Caribbean to stop a hurricane, people have made multiple attempts to bring icebergs to Africa as a supply of fresh, cold water. Unfortunately, the logistics of lugging an iceberg have never worked out, and no one has ever tested this hurricane-fighting scheme. Furthermore, there’s no proof that an iceberg would adequately cool ocean temperatures enough to slow down a hurricane. Environmentalists also warn that an iceberg massive enough to adequately lower water temperatures could have unknown effects on sea life.
The Nuclear Option
Every year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gets hundreds of inquiries as to why they don’t simply blow hurricanes up with nuclear bombs. The request is so common, that they have a dedicated webpage to let people know why that wouldn’t be a good idea.
They basically explain that the force of the blast would have to cancel out the wind energy of the storm. Unfortunately, the amount of energy released by a fully developed hurricane is roughly equivalent to a 10-megaton bomb going off every 20 minutes—and that’s measuring the heat output alone. They continue to explain that the blast would disperse air in the storm, making the barometric pressure drop—likely making the storm worse.
Similar to the iceberg method, the environmental effects of this approach are unknown, but weather experts have warned that nuclear fallout could be carried directly onto land by a surviving storm.
Pumping Up Cold Water
With the idea of an iceberg seeming exceedingly impractical, engineers have suggested using cold ocean water from deep below the ocean’s warm surface. They propose a fleet of pumps with giant pipes that would pull up cold water to weaken the storm.
Tech billionaire Bill Gates actually put up serious funds to research this method. The plan was to use the ocean waves to power the pumps themselves. Hundreds of these devices must be deployed across hundreds of miles of ocean to provide what they cited as a necessary 4.5° F drop in surface temperatures to slow a tropical cyclone. Though the company stands by its plan as possible, experts agree that it likely isn’t a feasible solution.
If it’s not practical to cool a hurricane down, would making it warmer slow it down? The Journal of Applied Meteorology published a theory for stopping hurricanes using black carbon—byproducts from burning fossil fuels. The idea was to dump tons of carbon dust into the hurricane wall, increasing the amount of heat it absorbed from the sun. The black particles would hold heat better than clear water.
The team of scientists behind the theory thought that by putting the carbon along the storm’s eyewall, they could cause it to artificially collapse as it became too warm too quickly and tore itself apart. The cost of a seeding maneuver was estimated to be less than $5 million, which many argue is a good deal compared to the billions of dollars in damage major hurricanes can cause. Many consider this method to be promising, but NOAA discounts it for lack of proof and a general skepticism that it could affect something the size of a hurricane at all.
While there are a lot of untested ideas floating around about how to stop hurricanes, the United States government had an official task force assigned to researching the problem for years. Pioneers in the study of hurricanes, they perfected the aircraft used to monitor tropical cyclones today, and are responsible for much of what we know about what happens in the eye of a hurricane.
In 1947, they actually attempted to stop hurricane King. While most of their experiments used silver iodide to seed the outer rim of eyewalls to cause a collapse—in theory—they used dry ice in this real-world attempt. The storm had already clipped south Florida as it moved up the US east coast, so they thought it was safe to try their experiment.
A single plane dropped 180 pounds of crushed dry ice into the clouds, and immediately noticed changes in the clouds. Tragically, the storm proceeded to make a u-turn back at the coast and devastated Georgia. Weather experts don’t think the crew’s actions caused any change in the storm, but the public blamed the project for the turn. Cloud seeding hurricanes became highly controversial in the years to come.
The group conducted more tests, but delays, budget cuts, and public stigma eventually ended the project in 1971.