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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

  28 comments

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?








Comments:
achieve the same effect much more inexpensively in the short run by having cargo planes dispatch large soot bombs to dramatically increase the solar absorptivity of the clouds on the top of the hurricane. - kmcaviezel Denver CO
 
When it gets out of control and we are zapping anything that may slightly look like a storm... What would the effects be on the rest of the weather system?

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To add to the previous comment. One of the reasons why the solar collectors in the proposed solar energy system are located atop the elevator is microwaves ripping through the atmosphere are highly dangerous to organic lifeforms, not to mention mass production of ozone. Same ozone effect as lightning. Not to mention, that hurricane strength and frequency has been linked to the increase in the ocean surface temp, somehow using a huge microwave, no matter how accurate, will be counter productive. Question to ponder: How many times throughout history have altruistic ideals and solutions produced unanticipated problems greater than the original problem? Manhattan Project, Agent Orange, etc comes to mind. Space and James Bond laser beams are not the answer to these sorts of problems. Activism starts in your own backyard!
 
I wouldn't call this idea "altruistic" -- it's very much in each of our self-interests: We'd be protecting ourselves against the cost and damage of hurricanes; our insurance rates would decline; and the federal government would lose an excuse to lard hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars onto corrupt and incompetent local and state officials, as well as federal bureaucracies, who mess up evacuations and emergency measures.

Oops, got off onto a little rant there...
 
This would be highly ill-advised without very careful evaluation of the impact of energy and entropy distribution models on a global scale. Specifically, hurricanes absorb huge amounts of energy from oceans and transfer that energy in-land or to other ocean locations of lower energy potential, with corresponding, though more complex, entropy transfers.

It is entirely unclear whether deliberately disabling a natural, organized, and highly efficient energy and entropy transfer mechnanism would serve the long term interests of public safety. Given the tendency of complex systems of asymetric energy potential to create higher order organizations at higher energy potentials, disabling hurricanes of the magnitude that we currently experience might serve only to catalyze the formation of more highly organized and energetic (read as destructive) systems downstream.

This is to say nothing immense and unkown effects of this practice would have on the ecological development of areas routinely (on a the long natural time scale) subjected to hurricanes.

The closest analog to this idea which comes to mind is the now largely discredited practice of extinguishing natural-cause wildfires. For a time it seemed to reduce the danger and destruction caused by appearently random and pointless natural 'accidents'. Until that is, of course, we discovered that we had allowed entirely too much potential energy (in the form of burnable brush) accumulate in the system, resulting in near cataclysmic, and uncontrollable, fires which destroyed many things (like old growth trees) which would likely have survived the more frequent but less intense fires of natural occurence.

In short, when dealing with systems of energy and complexity of such enormous magnitude, one should retain adequate respect for what is unkown and tread very very carefully.
 
Qapage, that is a very well-reasoned argument against rushing into an attempt to eliminate hurricanes. There are serious risks to consider, but there are also major potential rewards on the other side of the ledger.

I still think it's worth the investment in the infrastructure (space elevators, satellites, solar arrays, super computers) which would be needed to kill hurricanes. The worst case (financially) would be that after further experimentation and modeling it was decided that elimination hurricanes was a bad idea. The infrastructure we would have created will still pay for itself in the long run.

But it could easily turn out that your fears are unjustified. To extend your own analogy regarding wildfires, there are now many instances of "controlled burns" to reduce the fuel load. These are designed to be less destructive than random, naturally-occurring wildfires. Once in a while they get out of hand, but that is an issue which is amenable to improved techniques and equipment. Perhaps it will turn out that a similar strategy can be applied to cyclonic storms, to allow global heat-balancing while avoiding storms which cause massive destruction of human lives and habitations.
 
Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!
 
Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!
 
Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.
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When it gets out of control and we are zapping anything that may slightly look like a storm... What would the effects be on the rest of the weather system?
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The closest analog to this idea which comes to mind is the now largely discredited practice of extinguishing natural-cause wildfires. For a time it seemed to reduce the danger and destruction caused by appearently random and pointless natural 'accidents'. Until that is, of course, we discovered that we had allowed entirely too much potential energy (in the form of burnable brush) accumulate in the system, resulting in near cataclysmic, and uncontrollable, fires which destroyed many things (like old growth trees) which would likely have survived the more frequent but less intense fires of natural occurence.
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Until that is, of course, we discovered that we had allowed entirely too much potential energy (in the form of burnable brush) accumulate in the system, resulting in near cataclysmic, and uncontrollable, fires which destroyed many things (like old growth trees) which would likely have survived the more frequent but less intense fires of natural occurence.
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When it gets out of control and we are zapping anything that may slightly look like a storm... What would the effects be on the rest of the weather system?
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we discovered that we had allowed entirely too much potential energy (in the form of burnable brush) accumulate in the system, resulting in near cataclysmic, and uncontrollable, fires which destroyed many things (like old growth trees) which would likely have survived the more frequent but less intense fires of natural occurence.
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, we discovered that we had allowed entirely too much potential energy (in the form of burnable brush) accumulate in the system, resulting in near cataclysmic, and uncontrollable, fires which destroyed many things (like old growth trees) which would likely have survived the more frequent but less intense fires of natural occurence.
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I nevertheless believe it is well worth the purchase within the infrastructure (room elevators, satellites, solar arrays, super computer systems) which will be required to kill hurricanes. The worst situation (financially) is right after additional experimentation and modeling it was made a decision that elimination hurricanes was a poor concept. The infrastructure we would have produced will nevertheless spend for itself in the long run.
 
we discovered that we had allowed entirely too much potential energy (in the form of burnable brush) accumulate in the system, resulting in near cataclysmic, and uncontrollable, fires which destroyed many things (like old growth trees) which would likely have survived the more frequent but less intense fires of natural occurence.
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I have read an article about how we can disperse clouds that could turn into hurricanes or even melt those typhoon clouds. I think that is what they call Cloud seeding. I really don't know but it seems like it is going to be a great thing for us.
 
I still think it's worth the investment in the infrastructure (space elevators, satellites, solar arrays, super computers) which would be needed to kill hurricanes. The worst case (financially) would be that after further experimentation and modeling it was decided that elimination hurricanes was a bad idea. The infrastructure we would have created will still pay for itself in the long run.
 
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Space elevators are anovel idea but we can barely get ships into space. It might work if it does it will be a cool thing to do.
 
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.
 
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