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Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Hurricanes, Space Elevators, Solar Arrays, and Supercomputers

(A modest proposal for killing Hurricanes in their infancy using advanced technology)

There have been lots of blue-sky ideas floated over the years for diverting or destroying hurricanes. Most such plans are quickly refuted, since the energies expended by Mother Nature tend to dwarf anything at the disposal of human beings. Even nuclear explosions are weak in comparison, and the side-effects of nukes are unacceptable.

Unabashed by others’ failures, I’d like to toss my own original idea up in the air and see if it orbits.

Well, actually it turns out that only part of my idea is original (very few ideas are). As I researched this, I ran across an article titled Controlling Hurricanes by Ross N. Hoffman in the October 2004 issue of Scientific American. In it he also suggests that hurricanes could be diverted by carefully perturbing their chaotic behavior with the aid of sophisticated computer models. And among the possible levers he proposes for such perturbation is the use of earth-orbiting solar power stations beaming down microwave energy at portions of hurricanes.

I would take this a couple of steps further. In addition to the possibility of solar power stations converting sunlight to beamed microwave energy, we might be able to construct giant solar mirrors hundreds of miles in area to focus sunlight onto portions of tropical storms while they are still forming. Cyclonic storms have a complex and dynamic structure, and interferring with that structure at key points may be sufficient to interrupt their development and cause them to dissipate.

Roughly 80 tropical storms develop every year, but only a few turn into massive and destructive hurricanes. The energies involved in a new tropical storm are orders of magnitude less than a fully-developed hurricane, and hence are much more amenable to human-scale intervention.

But is there any practical way to build the enormous space structures which would be required to collect and focus enough energy? This is where space elevators come in. As carbon nanotube material technology advances, we stand on the verge of cheap space lift capability if we are willing to invest a few tens of billions of dollars in the necessary infrastructure. Not only would solar mirrors and power stations become economically feasible, but so would a greatly expanded network of sophisticated satellites capable of gathering huge volumes of data on tropical storms using many frequency bands and advanced instrumentation.

Tying this all together would be a network of supercomputers running predictive modeling programs. Moore’s Law continues to provide exponential increases in computer power, which will allow us to process the vast amount of satellite data and provide real-time feedback for storm perturbation efforts.

I discussed this with my brother, who is a physics professor specializing in chaos theory. He refused to express a professional opinion of the idea (although he did demand a cut of the profits), but he pointed out that controlling chaotic systems requires a great amount of experimentation and refinement of non-linear mathematical models. It seems to me this is precisely what we would be able to do. We could experiment with focusing energy within the structures of early-stage storms, observe the effects, and continue refining our models until we were confident of being able to dissipate or redirect the storms.

With numerous observation satellites in orbit we could detect tropical storms in their formative hours, and with multiple mirrors and/or microwave-beaming stations in space we could disrupt several storms simultaneously. Once the infrastructure is in place, the marginal cost for killing each budding hurricane is minimal. The potential savings in lives and monetary damage would vastly exceed the cost of building space elevators and boosting these assets into orbit.

Up until now, communications satellites of all types have been the “killer app” for orbital space launches. They’ve been the one unquestionable commercial success. Nothing else has come along to justify the near-term high cost of exploring space.

Hurricanes are the “killer app” for space elevators and cheap space travel.

Avoiding one Katrina would pay for all the space elevators and solar mirrors and power satellites we could ever want. With the objective of preventing hurricane damage, it would become financially worthwhile for a consortium of insurance companies to finance the needed infrastructure. Their investment would ultimately be hugely profitable even without the hurricane aspect, but this is the shareholder justification hook which insurance companies can hang their raincoats on.

How about if we set ourselves the goal of eliminating all destructive hurricanes within the next ten years?

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