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Scientists working to cut hurricanes' power

Taming the wind

BY PAUL RODGERS Science editor rodgersp@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 02, 2012    

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JAMAICANS hunkered down last weekend bracing for the impact of Tropical Storm Isaac, which later became a hurricane that pounded Louisiana and Mississippi in the US.

It was the fourth hurricane of the year, after Chris, Ernesto and Gordon. The 10 cyclones so far this season have killed 22 people and caused US$60 million (J$5.3 billion) in damage across the region.

While devastating for those affected, this is trivial compared to 1988's Hurricane Gilbert, which killed some 45 people in Jamaica, caused US$4 billion damage and left parts of the island, in the words of then prime minister Edward Seaga, "looking like Hiroshima after the atom bomb".

Like volcanos and earthquakes, hurricanes are forces of nature so huge they make humans seem like ants. The word "hurricane" is derived from the Taino name for the storms created by the goddess Guabancex.

A little over a century after Columbus borrowed the word from the Indians, it was firmly embedded in the English language. In King Lear, Shakespeare's protagonist rails against the storm:

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!"

And we have been honouring cyclones for their power ever since.

Vehicles ranging from a 19th-century railway locomotive, through the Battle of Britain's Hawker Hurricane fighter have been named after the storms. One novel, three films and several television shows have had it in their title, not to mention a Marvel Comics supervillain and a Transformer.

Faced with such overwhelming force, who could tame the wind?

Enter Professor John Latham, the retired head of atmospheric physics at the University of Manchester, England, who now works from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. In a paper in Atmospheric Science Letters two weeks ago, Latham and his team proposed a way to cut hurricanes by one category each.

And that's substantial. The difference in wind speeds between categories is around 25 to 30 km/h.

Cyclones start forming along the southwest coast of Africa, cross the Atlantic and continue spinning up the northeast coast of South America.

Their energy comes from the heat of the tropical waters below. If the surface can be cooled, even just a bit, it could make a big difference in the violence of the storms.

And cooling ocean waters is something that Latham has specialised in. He and his colleagues in the US and Britain have been working on a way to slow global warming by reducing the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth's surface for two decades.

Their approach is to spray tiny droplets of seawater, each barely a millionth of a metre in diameter, into the air beneath low-level stratocumulus clouds. About half rise into the clouds where they act as seeds for slightly larger water droplets, doubling their number from an average of 50 per cubic centimetre to 100.

"Because you get a lot of smaller drops instead of a few big ones, there's more surface area to bounce light back into space," Latham told the Sunday Observer.

The result is that the clouds become more reflective, by about 10 percentage points, enough to lower the temperature of the sea in their shadow by up to two degrees centigrade.

Originally, the team saw this as a way to geoengineer the world's climate, countering the warming effect of increased carbon dioxide in the air.

But a more manageable application would be to lower the water temperature in hurricane-forming areas.

Latham's team envisions fleets of unmanned ships, controlled by satellite, patrolling hurricane-forming regions.

The cost would be substantial, but it might be borne by insurers, who are financially most at risk of hurricane strikes, he suggested.

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