Originally created 07/05/99

Ocean cover could kill hurricanes



MIAMI -- In an attempt to give man an advantage over nature, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are experimenting with ways to thwart the power of a hurricane before it hits land.

The scientists want to know whether it is possible to cover the ocean ahead of a hurricane with a thin film that would prevent heat and moisture from the ocean with interacting with the hurricane, thus weakening the storm.

Hurricanes draw their power from warm ocean waters, and if that source of energy were cut off, the storm might die.

Scientists at MIT are trying to develop an environmentally benign, biodegradable chemical that could form an extremely thin film to put on the ocean in the path of an oncoming hurricane.

It would be sort of like covering the sea with a thin layer of plastic wrap -- although it would probably be liquid -- blocking off the ocean's warmth, starving the storm of its fuel.

Scientists have built models simulating a hurricane that show the theory could work. But so far, no one has come up with a chemical to do the job.

The sticking point is finding a chemical that would spread onto the water's surface and remain there for at least two days, said Hugh Willoughby, director of the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Scientists have tried a variety of offbeat ideas in the battle against hurricanes. They've seeded clouds with dry ice and silver iodide crystals. They've thought of bringing cooling icebergs to tropical seas. They've even imagined blowing storms away from land with windmills or even blasting them with hydrogen bombs.

And this new idea has its skeptics.

Some have wondered what would happen if the plan went awry and somehow made the storm worse.

"I suspect that the public might view with considerable concern humans playing God with such potentially destructive aspects of nature," said Roger E. Kasperson, director of The George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University, an institute in Worcester, Mass., that studies natural and technological hazards in the United States.

But Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, believes this theory has merit.

He and MIT polymer scientist Robert Langer are searching for a chemical that could be used for the sheen.

"It's pretty well known that this is the only way to mitigate a hurricane," Emanuel said. "The real issue is to see if you can find a substance that can hold together when conditions are extremely agitated."