Can We Do Something About This Weather?

Most climate scientists say we should expect extreme weather to happen more often in the future. Do we have to be satisfied with just being prepared?

Hurricane Irene makes landfall.
Hurricane Irene makes landfall. Image courtesy of NASA

The week started with an earthquake, which led to the surreal scene of thousands of people standing on sidewalks in downtown Washington, realizing collectively that no one could get through on their cell phones and we’d have to talk to each other about our shared 15 seconds of shake, rattle and roll.

It ended with recurring reports of how it was going to rain cats and dogs and flying monkeys and how the power would probably go out, resulting in long lines of people buying enough batteries to light Vegas.

Usually, I love raging nature. It’s the great leveler, rendering us awed, thrown off our routines and scrambling like ants lugging rolls of toilet paper. Except, that in the past few years, these extreme events have come with such frequency that all sense of wonder is fading—not to mention that they’ve been tremendously destructive and costly. Hurricane Irene is the 10th billion-dollar natural disaster we’ve had in the U.S. alone this year, and it’s not even September.

You’re starting to hear this described as the “new normal.” While no climate scientist would blame a single storm on global warming, most will say that climate change increases the likelihood that weather will turn ugly—torrential rains, more intense heat waves, longer droughts and relentless snowstorms.

It looks as if Mother Nature will be going large on us more often in future. Surely, our old friend Technology can help us out, right?

Appy days

Irene has been our first apps hurricane, the initial chance to see if smart phones can allow you to avoid watching local reporters trying to stay upright as they tell you it’s windy. There are plenty of storm apps out there already. The Weather Channel, naturally, has one (free). So does Accuweather (free). So do the National Hurricane Center (Hurricane Express, 99 cents) and NOAA (NOAA Radar U.S., free). Most come with cheerfully colored maps (which actually are much easier to read on iPads than phones,) satellite images, alerts and forecasts—in short, everything you’d get from the windblown reporter except the slapstick.

The Department of Health and Human Services is getting in on the app action, too, offering a $10,000 prize to the developer who designs the best Facebook mobile app to help people create support networks to get them through natural disasters.

Ready or not

That’s all good, but there must be someone thinking bigger, someone who has figured out a way to move hurricanes. Enter Bill Gates.

A few years ago, he and a group of scientists applied for a patent for technology to slow or weaken hurricanes. Simply put, a fleet of barges would be towed into the path of a developing storm and each would then pump warm surface water to the bottom and, at the same time, pull cold water from the deep up to the surface. In theory, it would work because warmer water strengthens hurricanes. But reality is always the tricky part. According to some scientists, it would have to be done on such a massive scale to be effective, that it likely wouldn’t make economic sense. Plus, wind is just too shifty. Imagine trying to get this big fleet into position in enough time to suck the life out of a storm.

We may, for the time being, have to be content with dealing with nature instead of trying to control it. Like the team of scientists at the University of Texas using IBM’s Deep Thunder computer model to do high-speed-simulations of flooding. It will allow them to predict water flow in an entire river system—every stream, every tributary—instead of just the main rivers. And that would help local officials evacuate the people at greatest risk of fast-rising water.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Missouri are taking on the flip side of extreme weather. They’ve built drought simulators—100-foot long mobile greenhouses on tracks—that are moved over crops when it rains and moved away when it’s sunny.  No matter how this might seem, the goal is not to kill plants. It’s to see how different crops in different soil react to droughts of different lengths and intensity.

These days, it’s all about being prepared.

Bonus: Watch this video collection of TV reporters getting blown away, compliments of The Daily Beast .

Is it time we got more serious about manipulating nature? Or should we just keep focusing on being ready for its biggest punches?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.