Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Should taxpayers fund research into weather modification?

A New Debate Over Steering hurricanes

A theory, the idea is simple: Lower the temperature of the clouds, and scientists could weaken a hurricane or even alter its path. In one scenario, airplanes would spread a layer of soot into the icy clouds at the top of a storm system, cooling them further and slowing the winds. Cut those wind speeds even a little, scientists say, and the devastating power of a storm surge could be drastically cut, perhaps saving lives and property.

Hurricane Fran heads toward Florida on Sept. 4, 1996. It hit land near Cape Fear, N.C.
(Alan Diaz/AP)

Hurricane Katrina has sparked renewed interest in weather and atmospheric modification, a discipline that has been around for more than a half century and is used to stop hail in North Dakota and western Canada and to change rain patterns in many countries. China plans to use weather modification to keep rain away from the Olympics this summer.

Now, the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, which helps agencies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is expressing an interest in the science of hurricane modification. "It sounds kind of crazy and science fiction-ish, but it's really the direction we need to go in," Chris Doyle, head of DHS's science and technology research division, told a conference of the American Meteorological Society last month.

Enter hurricane researcher Joseph Golden, a veteran of Project Stormfury, the federal government's last foray into weather modification, which began in the 1960s. Golden organized a meeting of scientists at the conference to discuss weather modification and was surprised to find the topic far less controversial than during the Stormfury days. "I expected a far more contentious discussion," he says. "But there are still major issues that were never resolved, like what about the unintended consequences." Where, for instance, would scientists direct a storm? Toward a less populated area? What about the impact on other nations? Mexico, for instance, relies on hurricanes for a significant portion of its annual rainfall. And who would be accountable if something went wrong?

While it failed to knock out hurricanes as intended, the original Project Stormfury, run through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, did contribute much to scientists' understanding of major storms, particularly about how their structures change. The project also tried "seeding clouds," particularly with silver oxide crystals, to super-cool the clouds and, hopefully, weaken hurricanes. Tests on several Atlantic hurricanes revealed that the structure of the storms was not what the team had theorized and that small-scale cloud seeding was ineffective.

Now, with far more sophisticated computer modeling and more advanced aircraft, weakening storms seems closer, if researchers can only get funding to test their theories. Several million dollars in seed money from DHS could fund some studies, according to scientists on the AMS panel. Workable tests could be far more expensive.

Department's doubters. But however advanced the technology, weather modification still has skeptics. Jay Cohen, who heads the DHS Science and Technology effort, told a congressional hearing in February that while the projects were very risky, "they offer the potential for leap-ahead gains in capability should they succeed." It was not an easy sell. The high-risk research division of DHS, which has a budget of some $60 million for 2008, is associated with radiation scanners at ports and explosives detectors at airports that have failed to meet expectations. "Frankly, it's been a bit of a rough start," Rep. David Wu of Oregon, who heads a committee on innovation, told Cohen. Others are more critical. "Part of the reason the department is so dysfunctional is that it tries to do too many things," says Clark Kent Ervin, the first inspector general of DHS. "Many people feel that the department should stick to counterterrorism efforts."

Most DHS research money does go toward detection of chemical, biological, and nuclear threats, and the high-risk budget is just 1 percent of the whole. But Cohen has been an advocate of new technologies. As for hurricane modification, scientists say research itself can reap benefits. "Even if we can't change their direction," says Golden, "we may develop better ways to predict where storms will make landfall."


A tornado still fresh in Hoisington’s memory

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the large night-time tornado that struck Hoisington in northern Barton County, killing two people and injuring 28 others.

The tornado touched down a mile southwest of Hoisington at about 9:15 p.m., rapidly grew to F-3 intensity and entered the west side of town. Within a couple of minutes, it grew to an F-4 and carved a path of destruction two miles long and two blocks wide through the northern part of the city, which has a population of about 3,000 people.

By the time the tornado exited on the north side of the city, officials estimated that it destroyed 182 homes and 12 businesses and tore the roof off of the hospital. As it weakened, it curled back to the northwest and damaged two farmsteads before dissipating.

If that curl back to the northwest sounds familiar, it should: the massive tornado that struck Greensburg last May also turned to the northwest shortly before falling apart - nearly doubling back to strike the town a second time.

The Hoisington tornado alarmed meteorologists because it grew so strong so quickly after touching down. Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote a few days after the tornado, quoting Dick Elder, meteorologist-in-charge of the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service:

The largest tornadoes - such as the ones that struck Hesston in 1990, Haysville, Wichita and Andover in 1991 and Haysville and Wichita again in 1999 - routinely dip down a few times before gaining strength and staying on the ground for extended periods.

But the Hoisington tornado went from infant to monster in seconds: Less than half a mile from where it touched down just west of the city, the tornado developed wind speeds exceeding 200 mph.

“In all my years of doing this, I’ve never seen one do that that quickly,” Elder said. “That’s something I’ll never forget as long as I live.

“Even if we would have said ‘Tornado Warning, a tornado is on the ground,’ it wouldn’t have done Hoisington any good, because it was so close to the town,” he said.

What kept the tornado’s death and injury toll so low, meteorologists said, is that Hoisington residents were paying attention to the conditions and telecasts about the threatening weather and took shelter before the tornado hit.




Old EPIRBS to stop working in 2009

Old EPIRBs to Stop Working in 2009Thursday, May 01, 2008 2:11:00 PMLast updated: Thursday, May 01, 2008 2:11:00 PMC

Coast Guard urges quick replacement of 121.5 and 243 MHz satellite distress units

— The Coast Guard is reminding boaters that after Feb. 1, 2009, only distress alerts from 406 MHz beacons will continue to be detected and processed by search and rescue satellites worldwide.

Older model EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) that transmit a distress alert on 121.5 MHz or 243 MHz will no longer be monitored by satellite, and are likely to go completely undetected in an emergency. Mariners disposing of their old EPIRB before Feb. 1, 2009 are urged to first remove the battery to prevent activation.

Although recreational boaters are not required to carry an EPIRB they are strongly recommended for all boaters venturing outside the harbor, along with a VHF-FM marine band radio. The 406 MHz signal sent by the newer EPIRBs when a mariner encounters distress is picked up by the COSPAS/ SARSAT satellite constellation, which determines the EPIRB’s position through triangulation. EPIRBs with embedded GPS are more helpful in quickly finding a distressed boater. With GPS coordinates, the position of distress is pinpointed almost immediately. Without GPS, it may take two or three satellite passes to come up with a good, triangulated position.

“As we say in the Coast Guard, 406 EPIRBs take the ‘search’ out of ‘search and rescue’,” said Capt. Chip Strangfeld, commander of Coast Guard Sector San Diego. “In some cases, the time saved by EPIRBs could mean the difference between life and death. For a one-time cost of under $900, a GPS embedded 406 EPIRB is ‘cheap insurance’ for those who put themselves at risk in the offshore environment.”

As long as the new 406 MHz beacon has been registered (which is required by law), search and rescue authorities can quickly confirm that the distress is real, who they are looking for, and a description of the vessel or aircraft. This means an effective search can be initiated even before a final distress location has been determined for non-GPS EPIRBs. It also means that a false activation may be resolved with a phone call to the beacon owner, saving resources for actual distress incidents.

This registration is free and can be done online at:, by mail, or fax at (888-212-SAVE. Beacon registrations must be updated at least every two years or when information such as emergency contact phone numbers and other vital information changes. The registration information is only available to authorized search and rescue personnel.