Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
The new Washington
Post Weather website
Jump to CWG's
Latest Full Forecast
Outside now? Radar, temps
and more: Weather Wall
Follow us on Twitter (@capitalweather) and become a fan on Facebook
Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 05/19/2009

DHS Rebuffed by NOAA on Hurricane Modification

By Steve Tracton

* Sunny Full Forecast | NatCast | Renaming Climate Change *

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina as it approaches the Gulf Coast on Aug. 28, 2005. Courtesy NOAA.

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 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.

By Steve Tracton  | May 19, 2009; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Government, Tracton, Tropical Weather  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: More Spectacular Spring Weather
Next: PM Update: Springtime at Its Finest


I seriously doubt that silver iodide [or dry ice] cloud seeding would serve to modify or attenuate a major hurricane. It's too small-scale an operation to have any effect, other than perhaps to cause a few minor fluctuations in the storm's energy budget.

It certainly would NOT steer a tropical cyclone out to sea or into a region of cooler sea surface temperatures, which would have the desired effect of attenuating or dissipating the cyclone. The only thing which would cause such a desired result would be the highly energy-intensive option of controlling a tropical cyclone's steering currents. If humankind ever is able to achieve such weather control, we will by then have found the mechanism to solve our "global warming" problems. We will also have found the means to overcome the problem of replenishing our depleted fossil-fuel reserves, presumably through replacement with a renewable energy source.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | May 19, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Make that an inexhautstible and renewable energy resource!

As of now, fusion power just won't fill the bill. Currently fusion researchers simply CANNOT find a way to confine a superheated plasma long enough to initiate and sustain a hydrogen fusion reaction to pass the "break-even" point where more energy is released by the reaction than absorbed to initiate it. This is why we don't have any fusion power plants in operation today. No one has found a way to "get the darn thing going" in an economically feasible manner. Sorry, but until we ever find a way of producing cheap, efficient, abundant fusion energy, we'll never be able to achieve large-scale synoptic "weather control".

Posted by: Bombo47jea | May 19, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Ugh. What about spending the money on restoring the wetlands? Did these people not see "Hurricane on the Bayou?"

Posted by: HistoryTchr | May 19, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

I think the liability (and/or perceived liability) risks alone are enough to remove weather modification activities from consideration. Save some money DHS or at least use it for more reality-based problem-solving.

Posted by: Raiche58 | May 19, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse


You’ve pointed to the heart of the issue, “….use it (money) for more reality-based problem-solving”.

A real problem requiring attention by DHS is the threat posed by solar storms, which without exaggeration could literally threaten life as we know it. As I reported in a recent post this is not the story line of a sci-fi movie, but rather a realistic scenario described in a recent report by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Yet, I’ve confirmed that this obvious threat to national security is not even on the radar screen of DHS.

I attended a meeting today of scientists and policy makers to examine the question, are we ready for the next Solar Max, expected over the period 2009 – 2012. There was discussion of the national security implications, the need to be prepared should disaster occur (unlike for Katrina), and a list of federal agencies which must deal with this cross agency problem. DHS was not included in the list! When I asked why, the answer was essentially, “good question” and a ho-hum to the effect the solar weather issue is a work in progress.

Given the budget and resource requirements of the “Space Weather Enterprise”, the millions of dollars DHS is prepared to spend on hurricane modification would be much more wisely directed to the reality-based problem of understanding, predicting, and preparing for the potentially catastrophic effects of solar storms.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | May 19, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2012 The Washington Post Company