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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-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.