Irving Langmuir tried to change the world one storm at a time.
- By Sam Kean
- Air & Space magazine, July 2010
(Page 4 of 5)
And then the eye. Not all hurricane missions penetrated the eye, but pilots sure remember when they did. Some described a “Tarzan moment”: staggering forward out of a dark cave of clouds, fighting through sheets of water like a waterfall, wet and angry—then emerging into crisp brilliant air. “You can see all the way up forever, to the stars and the moon,” says Turner. “The wind drops off to zero. Sometimes it would have been such a painful transit getting in there, I’d fly a few times around in the clear, and we’d have a cup of coffee and go to the bathroom and straighten up the airplane.” Eventually, they girded themselves and plunged back into the cloud bank.
In 1969, Turner started flying for the Florida-based Stormfury, doing seeding runs and ferrying dozens of strapped-down scientists into storm cores to gather data. Stormfury’s yearly budget, $2 million, outpaced Cirrus’ ($750,000 at its peak), and that didn’t include the millions spent outfitting airplanes, including Lockheed P-3 Orions, for hurricane hunting. Instead of dumping seeds through funnels, as had been done in Cirrus, some Stormfury scientists developed 130-pound bombs with fins. Others went micro, developing plastic flares a few inches wide, called “candles,” that worked on a delayed fuse and streamed silver iodide for 36 seconds as they fell.
Despite fires, turbulence, and other dangers—or perhaps because of them—Stormfury scientists had a cowboy cockiness about playing with hurricanes. They chafed at government restrictions, which limited company pilots to seeding only hurricanes that had no chance of striking land. “Bureaucrats are scaredy-cats,” one anonymous Stormfury scientist growled to Time.
The scientists were cocky because, they believed, they had finally developed a fail-proof way to defuse hurricanes. Hurricanes can stretch for hundreds of miles, but they concentrate their fury in the eyewall, the bank of swirling clouds orbiting the eye, which in powerful storms span only a few tens of miles. The tighter the eyewall, the greater the concentration of energy, and the greater the damage when storms hit land. Stormfury scientists calculated that if they sprinkled silver iodide in a wide ring around the eye, the seeded clouds would writhe, rain, and collapse. This would disrupt the eyewall, sucking it outward by 10 or so miles, and crank down the winds that cause destruction.
Because of the scales involved, each seeding run required 10 or so airplanes to fly laps for an hour or two in the murky dark, in a counterclockwise swirl that required remarkable coordination. Hugh Willoughby, a former Stormfury scientist, says his colleagues knew exactly how many airplanes to fly and how far apart to fly them. They knew what chemicals to dispense, how much, and when. They knew the type of signals they wanted to see on satellites and on radar. And see them they did: Early experiments clearly showed eyewalls getting wider and wind speeds falling.
But as the science got more objective and rigorous, support for seeding hurricanes unraveled. Blind experiments with non-storm clouds—where pilots would randomly tear open one of two sealed envelopes, which contained instructions to seed or only pretend to—proved that scientists on the ground could not reliably predict, based on observations alone, if clouds had been seeded. Some seeded clouds did nothing, and some unseeded ones blew up like mushroom clouds.
In light of these experiments, Stormfury faced the same troubling questions: Did eyewalls sometimes widen spontaneously, without human intervention? Meteorologists could not find enough suitable storms near Florida to examine, and in the early 1970s their work ground to a halt. When the scientists tried to revive the project a few years later, political forces worked against them. They tried to shift hurricane seeding to the Pacific Ocean, but China, Japan, and Australia said loud and clear the United States better back off.
Stormfury’s coup de grace came in the early 1980s, when Hugh Willoughby and two other alumni wrote a demoralizing scientific analysis. They concluded that hurricanes did form new eyewalls all the time—with or without seeding. They also showed that the amount of supercooled water in hurricanes—a necessary ingredient for seeding—was orders of magnitude smaller than scientists had assumed. All in all, then, seeding had probably not disrupted a single hurricane, and any observed decreases in wind speed were probably coincidental. In 1983, the Department of Commerce killed Project Stormfury for good.