DHS Rebuffed by NOAA on Hurricane Modification
The field of hurricane modification research has been largely silent since 1983, which marked the end of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Project Stormfury. The 21-year NOAA project sought to weaken hurricanes by seeding clouds with silver iodide, but failed to prove that changes in storm behavior were due to seeding rather than natural causes.
More than 25 years later, despite the dubious results of past research and other concerns raised by critics, the Department of Homeland Security is attempting to establish a hurricane modification program of its own, but NOAA appears unwilling to provide the critical support the DHS program requires.
Keep reading for more on DHS's plans for hurricane modification research, and NOAA's response...
In an earlier post I reviewed past attempts and recent proposals to modify hurricanes in order to lessen the severity of their impacts on life and property. Some ideas, such as blowing storms up with hydrogen bombs or using giant fans to blow storms away from land, are as absurd as the scheme I concocted for saving Miami from the fictional Hurricane Calamity (dispensing Prozac into the storm), while others appear scientifically reasonable and potentially feasible.
In Project Stormfury, aircraft flying into hurricanes dropped silver iodide particles into clouds just outside the eyewall (the ring of intense storms and winds surrounding the eye of a hurricane). In theory, the seeding would lead to formation of a new but weaker eyewall. The project's inconclusive results were discouraging enough to put an end to federal research on hurricane modification until a February 2008 workshop sponsored by DHS and hosted by NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory.
The goals of the workshop were to understand and evaluate new approaches for modifying hurricanes, which DHS regards as a threat to national security following the death and destruction wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and to decide how best to move forward.
Despite NOAA's hosting of the workshop, NOAA has rebuffed subsequent efforts by DHS to involve NOAA in its hurricane modification research, according to high-level sources within NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. The latest overture by DHS, which NOAA has yet to formally respond to, is a request that NOAA sign off on a DHS-authored Statement of Work (SOW). The SOW specifies that NOAA cooperation, including use of NOAA's operational and research aircraft, is required in order to carry out testing of hurricane modification hypotheses, according to a copy viewed by the Capital Weather Gang.
According to the NOAA sources, who did not want to be identified because they reviewed the SOW, NOAA's position on hurricane modification remains unchanged from that which appeared in a 2005 story on the Prison Planet.com Web site: "The approach of NOAA with regard to minimizing the impact of hurricanes on US citizens is to improve our forecast on the tracking and intensity of storms and to better warn those in harm's way. It is no longer the policy of NOAA to support or conduct weather modification research." NOAA's Office of Public Affairs declined to comment for this article.
Currently, NOAA's efforts to improve hurricane forecasts fall under the umbrella of its recently established 10-year Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Project, which aims to reduce the toll of hurricanes on life and property through improved forecasts, warnings and preparation. DHS asserts in the SOW that its efforts would complement the HFIP by improving understanding of hurricane structure and intensity. However, the NOAA sources maintain that the work outlined in the SOW is not high on the agency's priority list for accomplishing HFIP goals.
So far, the lack of interest from NOAA, the government agency responsible for issuing official forecasts of hurricanes through its National Hurricane Center, has not stopped DHS from developing a plan for hurricane modification research and testing. William Laska, program manager for DHS's Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), which is spearheading the department's hurricane modification efforts, outlined a suggested road ahead at an April American Meteorological Society meeting on weather modification.
The plan envisions three research tasks beginning toward the end of 2010 and ending in early 2016: Evaluation of storm modification approaches via computer model simulations, development of concepts for potential field experiments, and full-scale testing of one or two of the most viable concepts. Total cost to carry out the plan was estimated at $64.1 million.
HSARPA confirmed the accuracy of information on its plans for hurricane modification research but declined to comment on the overall premise of this article. DHS's Office of Public Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
A preliminary modeling study was sponsored by DHS and conducted by Woodley Weather Consultants (WWC) of Littleton, Colorado, which the SOW identifies as the principal contractor performing the work described. WWC reported its findings in March at the 63rd Interdepartmental Hurricane Conference, sponsored by the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology.
Critics of hurricane modification (myself included) cite the high costs and technical and logistical challenges of such research. They also argue that it may never be possible to distinguish between manmade and natural changes in a storm's behavior, or to predict with high confidence the outcome of modification attempts, given the complexity and chaotic nature of atmospheric processes. The latter could lead to liability issues related to unintended consequences, critics say, such as storm damage in an area that might have been impacted less severely had a storm not been modified, or less rain in an area suffering from drought.
| May 19, 2009; 10:45 AM ET
Categories: Government, Tracton, Tropical Weather
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