Icebergs, A-Bombs and Other Hurricane Cure-Alls
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
It's hurricane season again, a time when the government get a lot of unsolicited advice on how to defeat nature's most powerful storms. Recent suggestions have included attacking hurricanes with icebergs, diaper gel and nuclear weapons. Would any of these work?
Well, NPR's Jon Hamilton put that question to a couple of hurricane experts.
JON HAMILTON reporting:
Let's start with the nuclear option. Couldn't you just wait for the next Katrina and use a big nuke to blow it out of the water?
Dr. KERRY EMANUEL (MIT): Oh, I don't think so. It's not likely that it would do the right thing, and I think at the end of the day you'd simply have a radioactive hurricane.
HAMILTON: That's Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT. He's equally pessimistic about trying to tow icebergs in front of a storm or trying to dry them up with planeloads of super absorbent diaper gel. Yes, those are real suggestions the public has sent to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Emanuel says the major problem is that hurricanes are so much bigger and more powerful than anything people are likely to throw at them. Weather experts say a typical hurricane releases as much heat as a ten megaton nuclear bomb - every 20 minutes. Emanuel describes a hurricane's power in terms of electricity.
Dr. EMANUEL: If you could tame an average Atlantic hurricane, if you could somehow magically use the energy that it's generating, you could power the entire world electrically.
HAMILTON: As long as the storm lasts. Emanuel says it's hard to stop hurricanes, not just because they're so big, but because they're so simple. He says a hurricane is what scientists call a heat engine. It generates its power by extracting heat from the ocean.
Dr. EMANUEL: Everybody has the experience of getting out of a swimming pool, even on a hot day, feeling cold because water's evaporating from your skin and drawing heat from your body. That's exactly the process that transfers the heat from the ocean to the atmosphere.
HAMILTON: Usually that evaporation happens pretty slowly. The heat engine is barely turning over. But hurricanes turbo charge the process by adding strong winds. Think about how much heat you lose when you get out of a swimming pool on a windy day. Now imagine that wind is blowing 150 miles an hour.
You can actually see this heat engine rev up in satellite images of Hurricane Katrina. Scott Brown keeps copies of those pictures on his laptop. He's a meteorologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C.
Dr. SCOTT BROWN (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center): This is showing Katrina right as it's approaching the east coast of Florida.
HAMILTON: Katrina was barely a hurricane at that point. On the screen, it's just a disorganized blob of white clouds. Then Brown pulls up an image of water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, where Katrina's headed. Red is hot and the Gulf is very red.
Dr. BROWN: Ahead of the storm you'd just see very warm ocean temperatures and that just means there's plenty of energy available to it from the ocean.
HAMILTON: For the next couple of days, Katrina sucked that energy out of the water. The engine was speeding up. It was pushing water vapor miles up into the sky, where it condensed into rain. Brown points to a three-dimensional image of Katrina. Mountain-like peaks represent intense rain.
Dr. BROWN: This is right about the time that the rainfall really gets going. It starts dumping rain like mad and that's an indication that there's a lot of energy being released within the clouds and that helps, then, to spin out the circulation.
HAMILTON: When Brown says a lot of energy, he means enough to power a trillion 100-watt light bulbs. Katrina was also producing enough rain to supply everyone on earth with drinking water.
And that brings us back to diaper gel and icebergs. You could have stopped Katrina in its tracks if you could have absorbed all its water vapor. Another option would have been to cool down the Gulf of Mexico by dropping in a giant ice cube.
The problem is you'll never find a diaper or an ice cube big enough. Kerry Emanuel says one reason people keep suggesting unlikely ways to stop hurricanes is that they just can't see how powerful a storm really is.
Dr. EMANUEL: Over land, it's knocking down trees and buildings and that sort of thing. And over the ocean, of course, it's creating enormous waves that break and also causing ocean currents and storm surges.
HAMILTON: What they don't see is what's happening high overhead. The vast majority of a hurricane's energy is being released in the form of turbulent winds miles above the carnage. And up there, even a nuclear blast would be just one more big gust.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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