Science October 2007

Riders on the Storm

Can meteorologists armed with supercomputers and a few tons of soot stop a hurricane from reaching the Gulf Coast? Can they stop it without getting sued?

“There will never be large-scale weather modification in America,” says Charles Hosler, a weather-modification pioneer. “All weather is good or bad for somebody, and when it’s bad, that somebody’s going to sue.” (Hosler would know: He and his colleagues once successfully fought a suit by a tourist who had broken his leg after leaping out of a ski lift that had been struck by lightning. Hosler’s group had been studying thunderstorms nearby, and the tourist claimed the scientists were responsible for the strike.)

American courts have been ruling on weather modification since at least the late 1800s, when a judge decided that a preacher who had prayed for rain wasn’t liable for the thunderbolt that razed his neighbor’s barn in the ensuing storm. (The preacher had prayed only for rain, said the court, not for lightning.) In the mid-1960s, farmers in Pennsylvania sued after fruit growers in the region had called in a cloud seeder to suppress hail over their orchards. (The fruit growers were accused of playing God and causing a drought.) The difficulty of proving causation saved the defendants in court, as it usually does in suits involving weather modification. But the courts have suggested that farmers might have a right to what legal analysts have called the “rivers flowing through [their] skies,” just as they have a right to the water under their fields. Stealing clouds could be legally analogous to diverting a stream.

Past attempts to mitigate hurricanes have resulted in both legal and diplomatic headaches. In one early experiment, Hosler says, lawyers for General Electric (which was part of Proj­ect Cirrus at the time) counseled the company to keep silent about its cloud-seeding activities, after a storm with which it had been tinkering swerved and battered South Carolina. Fidel Castro later accused American scientists working on Proj­ect Stormfury of using hurricanes as a counterrevolutionary instrument of war.

In both cases, the experiments almost certainly did nothing to alter any hurricane’s course—their methods, science now shows, were likely hopeless. But that’s scant comfort to hurricane researchers today, some of whom may seek legal protection before field-testing their ideas. In a 2006 paper, for example, Alamaro and two collaborators proposed treaties that would eliminate civil liabilities for hurricane modifiers and guarantee compensation for hurricane victims.

Ultimately, whether lawmakers expand protections and financial support for weather modifiers will likely depend on the weather. “If there were another hurricane like Katrina,” says Alamaro, “the legislature might initiate laws to help with these issues.” Some evidence suggests that hurricanes in the North Atlantic have recently been increasing in strength and frequency, and historically, bad hurricane seasons have sometimes meant more money and support for hurricane-killers. “When people get themselves pounded into oblivion,” says Woodley, “they start talking to their representatives.” New approaches become more appealing.

Even hurricane-modification advocates admit their cause is risky and expensive. But the defensive crouch that we’re in now is expensive, too, and is hardly guaranteed to work: The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated it may need more than $2.5 billion—several times what the hurricane modifiers think they’d need over the next decade—to buttress New Orleans against the next Katrina-level storm. Perhaps in this case it really would be better to fight them over seas, so we don’t have to fight them at home.

Presented by

Graeme Wood is an Atlantic staff editor.

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