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Geek Trivia: Finding a silver lining

What was the only major U.S. government-supported project designed to diminish hurricanes?

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Hurricane Charley made landfall less than two weeks ago, officially sounding the opening bell of the height of Atlantic hurricane season to the tune of billions of dollars in damages and immeasurable loss to those caught in the storm's path. Charley proves once more that despite all of humanity's advances in science and technology, Mother Nature is still very firmly in charge of planet Earth.

Of course, that hasn't stopped humanity from trying, particularly where hurricanes are concerned. Scientists have spent decades working on technological means to mitigate the impact of hurricanes on both human life and property, and we're not just talking better forecasting methods.

Scientists have seriously studied a number of proposals to try to weaken or even dissipate tropical cyclones (the technical name for a wide class of oceanic storms, of which hurricanes are only one of the more famous breeds). Granted, some of the more commonly suggested "kill the hurricane" techniques are just this side of mad science, but other proposed solutions have had a more legitimate basis that just didn't prove feasible on further examination.

Firmly in the crackpot camp is the nuclear option, which suggests dropping a nuclear explosive on or near a nascent tropical cyclone in order to disrupt its formation. Beyond the technical reasons why this wouldn't work—and it wouldn't—the issue of radioactive fallout would be worse than the storm itself, especially after a cyclone scattered radioactive debris hundreds of miles across the ocean.

Similar issues of scale and ecological consequences have ruled out notions of piping cold deep-ocean water or towing icebergs into hurricanes' paths. (To form, hurricanes require water that's 80 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, and warm water is their key "fuel" source.) The same goes for dumping and burning off massive carbon soot slicks in the storms' predicted paths to prevent hurricane-fueling oceanic evaporation.

Perhaps the only legitimately considered technique on the untried anti-hurricane hit list is Dyn-O-Gel, a water-absorbing compound that would effectively turn airborne moisture into balls of heavier-than-air goo, thereby dismantling the storm clouds that make up hurricanes. Alas, while computer models suggest this technique might actually work, the thousands of tons of Dyn-O-Gel powder and the thousands of aircraft forays needed to actually snuff a hurricane still make this idea technically unfeasible.

So, have all these bad ideas stopped the government from ever testing a decent anti-hurricane option? Of course not: The United States actually sanctioned active testing of hurricane countermeasures for more than 20 years.

WHAT WAS THE ONLY MAJOR U.S. GOVERNMENT-SUPPORTED PROJECT DESIGNED TO DIMINISH HURRICANES?

What was the only major U.S. government-sanctioned experiment actively designed to diminish the intensity (and therefore destructive potential) of hurricanes?

Grounded on one central scientific premise—seeding tropical cyclones with silver iodide to try to force them to collapse—Project STORMFURY ran from 1962 to 1983.

STORMFURY also performed significant hurricane modeling and analysis, thanks in part to its military origins, which provided highly skilled storm-chaser pilots and capable aircraft. However, the initiative is most famous, and most infamous, for silver iodide cloud seeding.

Without delving too much into the complex meteorological physics of hurricanes, we can sum up the logic behind the silver iodide experiment fairly clearly. A distinct cloud formation called the eyewall separates the eye of a hurricane, the axis around which these giant cyclonic storms rotate, from the rest of the storm.

If the eye grows too large, the storm slows down and effectively loses structural integrity, tearing itself apart and becoming just another nonrotating collection of sea-going thunderstorms. Project STORMFURY suggested that if it could devise a method to coax the eyewall to widen, one could effectively "defuse" or at least diminish a hurricane.

This is how silver iodide, often used to seed normal clouds to convert them into heavy rain clouds, came into play. Aircraft would seed hurricane clouds outside the eyewall, coaxing them to grow and form a new, wider eyewall that cannibalized the old one. This, in turn, would diminish the tropical cyclone before it could ramp up to higher hurricane levels.

Early results were promising, and the project performed several seeding experiments between 1962 and 1971. STORMFURY spent the next decade analyzing the results of apparently successfully "slowed" hurricanes.

But with the dawn of more advanced computer modeling in the early 1980s, new analysis suggested that unseeded hurricanes slowed in much the same way as seeded hurricanes, meaning that the "gains" STORMFURY observed were just as likely to be naturally occurring behaviors of hurricanes.

Not surprisingly, and not long after this data came to light, the government shut down STORMFURY in 1983. Thus, while science may not have yet cracked the mystery of blunting hurricanes, its failed attempts have made for some great Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the Aug. 11 edition of Geek Trivia, "The fast and the curious," which discussed the idiosyncrasies of Montana's speed limits (and occasional lack thereof). TechRepublic member Gsquared pointed out a minor oversight on our part.

"Minor quibble on this one: There was also always a speed limit (65 [mph] daytime, 60 [mph] nighttime, if I remember correctly) in Montana for trucks."

Actually, there were numerous speed limit exceptions for irregular vehicles and all vehicles in construction zones. However, conventional trucks weighing more than 8,000 pounds were restricted to 65 mph—day or night—on interstates and lower speeds on surface roads. Thanks for the quibble, reader, and keep on truckin'.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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