Atmosphere And Weather

Project Stormfury Weakening Hurricanes

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If Donald Duck can chop up clouds in his bi-plane and move them over a dry farm and Superman can create hurricane force winds with a simple exhalation, why then can’t ordinary man control the forces of hurricanes? That was the goal of Project Stormfury which was run by the U.S. Government from 1962 to 1983. For 21 years, aircraft flew into the heart of Atlantic hurricanes; dumping silver iodide crystals into what scientists believed was super cooled water in the storm system. The theory was that the silver iodide would cause the super cooled water to freeze and thus disrupt the formation of a full-fledged hurricane. 

Actually, there was an earlier experiment (Project Cirrus) in 1947. GE and the U.S. Military came up with the idea of dropping dry ice into the area around the eye of the hurricane. In their first attempt, the hurricane headed directly toward land (not a good thing) and hit Savannah square on. The morality of moving weather systems is one that is still with us. Attempts to seed clouds to provide rain to drought areas of Asia in some cases have left otherwise fertile areas devoid of rain. Weakening hurricanes is a valid goal – however, if only the direction not the velocity is changed, the outcome is questionable. Project Cirrus was canceled after the Savannah episode. 

Project Stormfury which involved GE, scientists Vincent Schaefer and Irving Langmuir, and the U.S. Military was based on the belief that seeding the area around the eye wall of the storm would cause latent heat to be released. The heat would then cause a secondary eye wall to form which would actually be larger than the first. Then due to the pressure differences between the two eyeballs within one storm, the wind force would diminish. Schaefer who worked with GE had actually created a major snowstorm in 1946 by seeding a cloud. That wasn’t a popular outcome either and GE dropped out of the project but did keep working with the military to lessen the force of hurricanes. 

During the course of Project Stormfury, there were only a few hurricanes who met all the eye wall and pressure gradient requirements for seeding.  Beulah (1963) seemed like the perfect storm but on the first attempt, the silver iodide was dropped in the wrong place. The next day, it was correctly placed and scientists measured the storm as reducing in strength by 20 percent. Betsy in 1969 also seemed like a good candidate but the storm swung toward Florida before it could be seeded. It caused a lot of damage and the public, thinking it had been seeded, blamed the government. After many failed attempts, Project Stormfury was cancelled in 1983. 

The hypothesis behind Project Stormfury was wrong for two reasons. 1. It was found that hurricanes do not contain enough super cooled water for the procedure to work; and 2. Hurricanes often go through changes  without any manmade intervention. Thus, it was impossible to determine if slight changes in wind velocity were due to the seeding or just a natural phenomenon. However, there were many benefits to the experimental seeding and the data gathered. 

The science learned in the data gathering led to better understanding of ocean-based storms. As a result, better forecasting was made available. NOAA discovered that Lockheed P-3’s were the perfect forecasting planes; they are still used today. The failure of the project led to better classification of what’s true and not true about hurricanes. Despite the fact that Fidel Castro said that Project Storm Fury was the U.S. attempt to turn hurricanes into weapons, he and every resident of a tropical coastal region have benefited from the truths learned.  Separating fact from fiction is an important part of scientific discovery. Project Stormfury did just that in the realm of hurricanes.

More about this author: Cynthia Wall

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