Microwaves, Modification & Harnessing

Microwave a Tornado, Lase a Rainstorm

Grantsville, Utah, stands a rusting, four-foot-tall metal box. The box sits atop a tank of gaseous silver iodide that, when fired up, sends a plume downwind toward the nearby Oquirrh Mountains. Once carried up on the wind, each silver iodide crystal forms a core, or nucleus, around which water droplets collect. Since silver iodide has a crystalline structure similar to that of ice, it allows the tiny water droplets to coalesce until they are big and heavy enough to fall out of the sky, ultimately increasing snowfall between 10 and 15 percent a year. That’s more water for later release across the state’s thirsty desert during spring and baking summer, more water for irrigation, livestock, human consumption, and sports. It means millions of dollars in water-related revenues for the state’s economy every year.

The Utah cloud-seeding effort comes courtesy of North American Weather Consultants, America’s oldest weather modification company, located in an upscale office park in nearby Sandy, Utah. Founded in the 1950s, the group is currently run by two solid-citizen scientists with commercial aims, Don Griffith and Mark Solak, who have spent their careers working in privately funded weather modification efforts around the country and the world.

In Colorado they seeded the Gunnison River drainage, a series of reservoirs and dams in the west of the state. In California they run seeding programs for the Santa Barbara County Water Agency, a group that says the effort may increase rain in target areas up to 20 percent a year.

Full Story on Discover Magazine

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Harnessing the Weather

Could new technology help humans eliminate “acts of God”?

by Donovan Webster

From the June 2008 issue; published online June 6, 2008

NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

Not far from the Dead Dog Saloon, behind a body shop on the main street of Grantsville, Utah, stands a rusting, four-foot-tall metal box. The box sits atop a tank of gaseous silver iodide that, when fired up, sends a plume downwind toward the nearby Oquirrh Mountains. Once carried up on the wind, each silver iodide crystal forms a core, or nucleus, around which water droplets collect. Since silver iodide has a crystalline structure similar to that of ice, it allows the tiny water droplets to coalesce until they are big and heavy enough to fall out of the sky, ultimately increasing snowfall between 10 and 15 percent a year. That’s more water for later release across the state’s thirsty desert during spring and baking summer, more water for irrigation, livestock, human consumption, and sports. It means millions of dollars in water-related revenues for the state’s economy every year.

The Utah cloud-seeding effort comes courtesy of North American Weather Consultants, America’s oldest weather modification company, located in an upscale office park in nearby Sandy, Utah. Founded in the 1950s, the group is currently run by two solid-citizen scientists with commercial aims, Don Griffith and Mark Solak, who have spent their careers working in privately funded weather modification efforts around the country and the world.

In Colorado they seeded the Gunnison River drainage, a series of reservoirs and dams in the west of the state. In California they run seeding programs for the Santa Barbara County Water Agency, a group that says the effort may increase rain in target areas up to 20 percent a year.

In reality, cloud seeding is pretty low tech: A tank of silver iodide is topped by a burner and surrounded by a perforated-metal wind arrester. The whole contraption is hooked to a tank of propane to provide the flame and warmth that lifts the silver iodide into the atmosphere. 

“We’ve got lots of cloud-seeding units in mountainous areas all around Utah,” Solak says. When wind, temperature, and humidity are just right, the company calls local residents, who are paid a fee to go out and turn on a cloud-seeding unit, sending a plume of silver iodide downwind. Why an array of cloud seeders? Although a single plume cannot change the world, a group of such seeders, each responsible for a small shift in precip­itation, can often tilt the balance locally, driving rainfall or decreasing the intensity of storms.

“In weather modification, the uniniti­ated think you must make huge impacts on the atmosphere to get a desired result,” Griffith says. “But it’s actually the opposite. If we just make tiny modifications to existing conditions, little touches here and there, the changes then cascade upward using the existing weather’s natural actions, and that’s what gets the biggest results.”

While coaxing more rain or snow seems a modest achievement, projects on the drawing board might revolutionize our relationship with the elements and eliminate those tragic, weather-based “acts of God.” Imagine the ability to steer hurricanes offshore or shatter twisters, to prevent drought and heat waves, and to stop that worst of all nightmares—the melting of the polar ice caps and the flooding of coastal cities as the planet warms. The insight from weather modification’s old guard—that tiny changes can engender profound atmospheric shifts—has been embraced by more recent, cutting-edge investigators, those conceiving weather-changing satellites and using physics theories to invent a climate of choice.

“Weather systems are large, and our inputs as humans are so small you’d think we’d have no influence at all,” says Ross N. Hoffman, chief scientist and vice president of research and development at Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Yet with the help of new, highly nuanced computer models, Hoffman is working to alter weather based on tiny tweaks in the chaotic motion of air. Already he has shown, at least on the computer screen, that small changes in wind and air temperature—in fact, no more than 3 to 5 degrees—could have redirected hurricane Iniki away from landfall in 1992 and reduced the strength ofhurricane Andrew that same year. His colleagues hope to obliterate tornadoes and eliminate the scourge of drought using everything from lasers to tiny, solar-powered satellites orbiting Earth.

Efforts to change the weather seem more important than ever in this age of extremes, from killer hurricanes to furious nor’easters to ravaging floods. In 2007 alone, summer flooding in Great Britain cost that nation nearly $6 billion, while torrential rains in China displaced more than 500,000 people, with losses to property and crops in excess of $1 billion. And anyone considering recent weather has to recall the disastrous 2005 hurricane season, which birthed Katrina, Rita, and Wilma and cost the United States not only 2,280 lives but nearly $140 billion in losses. Three years later, from Biloxi to New Orleans to Houston, that destruction is still being repaired. According to the National Weather Service, the past decade was both the hottest and among the most meteorologically violent since the agency began keeping records.

When you consider that some of the most extreme weather has been driven by humans—that we have already been changing the weather, and in a negative way—the impetus to set things right makes particular sense. Our mechanized, urbanized, industrial society has burned so much fossil fuel that we have overburdened the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, pushing the earth’s elements out of balance. The greenhouse effect may be linked to hurricanes in summer and brutal storms in winter. If we cannot change the weather back, the melting of the ice caps, the flooding of our cities, and the destruction of crops may be next. If we have indeed wrecked the weather, perhaps we can set it right again.

Full Story Here On Discover Magazine

English: Cloud Seeding Process from a plane.

English: Cloud Seeding Process from a plane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Rain, Rain, Go Away

A superabsorbent polymer reinvigorates an old dream

From the September 2002 issue; published online September 1, 2002

by Jennifer Kahn

One overcast day last July, a small industrial firm loaded a cargo plane with four tons of absorbent polymer powder and took off from the Florida coast heading east. The plane flew until it was over international waters and above a mile-long cloud formation. Skimming the surface of the formation, the pilot dumped the powder, which drifted into the mist below. Minutes later observers in radar stations saw the cloud evaporate and disappear. Far below, a misty gel rained down into the waves and dissolved. In a very small way, the Dyn-O-Mat company may have changed the weather that day. 

Like telepathy research and antiaging experiments, the dream of controlling the weather on a large scale has never quite disappeared. In 1957 a presidential advisory committee warned that weather modification “could become a more important weapon than the atom bomb.” During the Vietnam War, the army mustered nearly 3,000 cloud-seeding missions, dropping silver iodide particles to swell monsoon rains over the Ho Chi Minh trail—all, apparently, to no avail. For the past two decades, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have tried to alter fronts and weaken hurricanes, also without success.

But failure seems unlikely to vanquish hope when it comes to manipulating the weather. Last year, for example, a San Diego company proposed fighting tornadoes by beaming microwaves at them from space. About the same time, a hurricane researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology advised that coating the oceans with a thin layer of oil might stop the evaporation that powers large storms.

“So far, every experiment showing a statistically significant effect has been discredited,” says Hugh Willoughby, a research meteorologist with the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Still, he remains a self-proclaimed “enabler” of weather-modification enthusiasts. “I probably read too many sci-fi books growing up, but I love the idea,” he says. “Imagine being able to herd clouds over cropland or stop hurricanes before they hit land.”

Of course, people alter the weather unintentionally all the time: Just by driving automobiles, they create smog that changes rainfall patterns. But focused tinkering is another matter. Weather systems are chaotic and incalculably complex. Turbulent winds, heated by the sun, bounce off mountains and collide with other systems, each of which has its own spiraling, tumbling momentum. Success itself runs the risk of triggering a chain reaction. Rains in a parched region of Africa, say, might trigger a drought in China. Furthermore, weather systems are so powerful, they can absorb almost anything humans throw at them.

Undaunted, Dyn-O-Mat is forging ahead with a grand experiment—making an entire tropical storm disappear by dumping 300 tons of the company’s patented powder into it. This month, if all goes to plan, two Russian planes will coat a five-mile-long wedge on the slow side of a tropical storm’s eye. Dyn-O-Mat’s president, J. D. Dutton, says the sudden evaporation should disrupt the storm’s momentum, causing it to shear off and unravel.

At Dyn-O-Mat’s Riviera Beach offices, there is little evidence of such bold plans. The conference room is stacked with bilge balls and oil booms that evoke the company’s main business, selling products to control petrochemical spills. But in the small lab here, a lush plant grows out of what looks like a tub of lumpy pink gelatin. This turns out to be Dyn-O-Moist, which helps lawns stay damp without frequent watering. The company also produces Dyn-O-Fire, a nonflammable gel that clings to leaves; Dyn-O-Drought, which stores morning dew for use by arid-land farmers; and other unusual products, including a sipping straw that changes color if a beverage passing through it has been spiked with Rohypnol, the date-rape drug.

The star of the weather show is called Dyn-O-Storm. Grainy and white, it looks like powdered laundry detergent. It’s made from the same cross-linked polyacrylic acids that fill diapers: long, netlike molecules that unfurl in the presence of water. When sodium ions are added to the formula, they neutralize the acids and form a superabsorbent web. Water molecules have a slightly positive charge at one end and a slightly negative charge at the other, so they normally clump together. But in the presence of Dyn-O-Storm, they separate and stick to the charged ions in the polymer’s net. The magnitude of the effect is eerie. Scatter even a few grains of Dyn-O-Storm into a bowl of water and the water congeals instantly into something rubbery and gray. It can then be dissolved in seawater because sodium and calcium ions bond more strongly with the polymer, knocking the water molecules free.

Chief executive officer and inventor Peter Cordani, a former golf course engineer, got the idea for Dyn-O-Storm three years ago when a small amount of another polymer touched his wet hands, which became instantly dry. Cordani spent the next week mixing together various off-the-shelf polymers. Early blends used round grains that ripped right through clouds like BBs. Cordani consulted Willoughby, who suggested making cereal-flake-shaped particles that would flutter down slowly, absorbing maximal water before exiting.

These days Cordani is occupied by threats to the success of the impending test of Dyn-O-Storm on a tropical maelstrom. There is a chance that the storm’s high winds might simply fling away the 300 tons of powder before it can be effective. Worse, the resulting gel-spew could blow back and smack the seeding airplanes. And the powder itself may pose a minor health risk. “I inhaled a bit by accident and had bronchitis for a week,” Willoughby says. “The stuff turns to slime in your lungs.”

Even if Cordani succeeds, he may have trouble proving it. Most storms weaken naturally. Who will know if Dyn-O-Storm works or nature took its course? The same uncertainty haunts Dyn-O-Mat’s original test, says Willoughby: “Sure the cloud disappeared, but thunderheads in Florida typically have a very short life. In 10 minutes, that cloud might have evaporated on its own.” He was initially supportive of the results, but Willoughby has since distanced himself, calling the experiment “unconvincing.”

If Dyn-O-Storm doesn’t prove effective, Cordani will simply move on to some 30 other products his company is developing. One of these—a tea bag filled with an oil-absorbent polymer, called Dyn-O-Trim—promises a different kind of miracle, one aimed at chefs and home cooks. “It takes the fat out of soups and gravies,” Cordani says. That sort of wizardry should not be surprising from a company whose CEO likes to say “The sky’s the limit.”  

Full Story on Discover Magazine

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