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Stabroek News

HURRICANES - CAN WE CONTROL THEM?
published: Sunday | July 17, 2005


Robert Buddan

CRIME, HEALTH, security and natural disasters are some of the areas that need immediate attention in the Caribbean. Events constantly remind us of this. Costs and shifting attention, however, upset our best intentions.

Legitimate as all those other issues are, this period reminds us once again of the threat posed to our economies, infrastructure and to peoples - lives by dangerous weather systems. Hurricanes will not allow our attention to slip for too long. Less than a year ago, the region had to contend with hurricanes Charley, Jeanne, Frances and Ivan. Already 'Dennis' has left us counting up the costs.

It is surprising that research into weather modification is not more popular. It would surely pay back the costs. It is as surprising that this kind of research has been virtually absent in a region as vulnerable to the weather as ours is.

Weather modification is about affecting dangerous weather systems by weakening or diverting them. Its heyday was from the 1960s to 1980 when cloud seeding experiments failed to produce the expected results. However, this kind of research entered a new phase in the late 1990s. Meteorologists agree that since 1995, hurricanes have become more frequent and more dangerous because of climate change.

COUNTING COSTS

Hurricane Andrew cost the United States 0.5 per cent of its GDP (about US$30 billion) in 1992. Hurricane Gilbert cost Jamaica 28 per cent of its GDP. Hurricane Ivan cost Florida US$13 billion and Jamaica J$25 billion. The four hurricanes that hit the United States in 2004 cost more than Andrew, the single most costly U.S. hurricane. Hurricanes have cost Cuba US$4.5 billion in the past 10 years. Grenada's GDP is about US$450 million. Hurricane Ivan's damage amounted to US$370 million. The year 2004 was the most expensive in U.S. hurricane history. It probably was the most expensive in Caribbean history as well.

The costs are not nearly recoverable, especially for small island states. Insurance coverage is difficult for disaster-prone countries to get. The IMF and development banks say there should be more innovative approaches to insurance coverage for small countries that are a disaster risk. Most government property and infrastructure in the Caribbean is uninsured.

A new factor to consider is the effect of hurricanes on oil prices. The active hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico might have spiked oil prices in 2004 and right after Hurricane Dennis made its appearance, the price of oil moved from US$60 to over US$61, which many observers associated with hurricane related uncertainty in the Gulf.

The combination of oil politics, the heat of summer, and hurricane effects on supply and demand, could drive oil prices to US$80 a barrel before the year is out. Just in case, Caribbean governments recently signed the PetroCaribe Agreement with Venezuela for concessional prices should oil prices reach US$100 a barrel. Even so, this is all the more reason why we should find out what can be done about hurricanes.

Of course, every cost cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Hurricane Mitch killed 7,000 people in Honduras and 3,000 in Nicaragua in 1998. Just last year, over 2,000 people died because of a tropical wave in Haiti and more than 600 Haitian lives were claimed by Hurricane Jeanne later that year. As things stand, storms are inevitable but more and more people, suffering increasingly from hurricane fatigue, are asking if anything can be done about them.

HURRICANE RESEARCH

Can hurricanes be pre-empted, weakened, or diverted from land? A few scientists have been working in the field of weather modification for 40 years. After the devastating 2004 season, Scientific American published an update of the work in this field in its October 2004 edition.

Weather modification is more promising now because computer modelling and satellite and radar technology make it so. We know a lot more about hurricanes. Scientific American reported that recent computer modelling shows progress in how to weaken hurricanes out at sea or divert them away from populated areas.

One problem persists though, and it is how to make the computer model work with real hurricanes. This is a challenge for two reasons. If hurricanes are to be diverted we need to be able to predict their future path with better precision. However, the greater challenge is how to affect such massive and powerful systems.

The basic solutions offered have been to cool the air within (potential) hurricane systems or the warm ocean surface from which hurricanes grow. The basic problem is how to do this economically and practically over the tens of thousands of square miles of air and ocean that hurricanes cover. One learned opinion is that all the dry ice in the world would be quickly absorbed by only a small part of a hurricane. Hurricanes are so powerful that they release energy equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes over a very wide area.

Yet, some scientists believe that you can affect small areas or specific parts of a hurricane and achieve major changes in their strength and direction. For instance, one scientist claims that microwaves beamed from space could weaken or change the direction of hurricanes if done the right way. Others believe that cloud seeding can work if the right material can be developed to affect precipitation. A company in Florida says it has developed a kind of powder that would dissipate clouds when sprinkled over them.

This would require a lot of powder, but the cost would be fully justifiable against the savings from damage. The company actually plans to apply this powder next hurricane season. As usual there are the pessimists who say that successful weather modification is still decades away.

It seems to me that this is the kind of research that the Caribbean should get involved in. The 25-member Association of Caribbean States (ACS) will be having its Heads of Government Summit at the end of July and one of its purposes is to foster cooperation against natural disasters. This might be a good time for the University of the West Indies (UWI) to lobby for governments to support the newly launched Centre for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction so that we can go beyond disaster preparedness and mitigation to actual weather modification.

CARIBBEAN RESEARCH

It is a kind of project that governments and private industry (insurance companies, for example) would find it beneficial to sponsor, and it is a service that will pay for itself a thousand times over. It is a field that is reputable enough for the American Meteorological Society to cover and for Scientific American to report on.

This is a project in which the UWI, the universities of the U.S. Southern States and those of the ACS countries could develop joint research. The Mona campus, because of its proximity to the Southern U.S. States, the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Caribbean, the most populous part of the Caribbean Basin, could house this research at UWI's new Centre. There are existing researchers who need institutional partners.

We might not be able to prevent earthquakes and volcano eruptions, but our research institutions should explore whatever chance there is to make the weather more benign.


Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI. Email: Robert.Buddan@uwimona.edu.jm

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