Global heating and the resulting climate breakdown are making wild weather the new normal. Rather than resorting to fanciful mega-scale geoengineering, though, the real solutions are far more prosaicby Bill McGuire / September 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
‘I got it, I got it. Why don’t we nuke them.’ No, not the Russians—hurricanes. Donald Trump’s reported solution to the growing hurricane threat to the US does boggle the mind, but given his inane spoutings on other issues, it is hardly a surprise.
Of course, the President has since denounced the whole things as fake news. Trump appears to be one of those people for whom a nuclear blast is the solution to every problem. But a hurricane is not North Korea or Iran. The fact is, the energy locked up in a hurricane dwarfs that of even the biggest nuclear bomb. In fact, an established hurricane releases as much heat energy every twenty minutes as a 10 megatonne nuclear device.
US interest in examining ways to defuse hurricanes is long-standing, and as far back as the early 1960s, storms were seeded with silver iodide in an attempt to weaken them—to no avail. Today, as the toll from hurricanes climbs, the renewed enthusiasm is understandable.
In 2017 alone, three major storms in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico—Harvey, Irma and Maria—took more than 300 lives and caused damage totalling a staggering US$450billion. And things can only get worse as global heating increases the frequency of the most powerful storms and makes them wetter too, causing more flooding.
But, Dr. Strangelove schemes aside, a few technological fixes have been touted that supposedly have the potential to spike a hurricane’s guns. A couple of these focus on cooling the surface waters of the tropical Atlantic, either by spraying seawater into the air to reflect more of the Sun’s heat or by using giant tubes to suck warm surface waters down into the depths.
Hurricanes need a water temperature of at least 26.5°C to form, so by dropping ocean surface temperatures below this—the thinking goes—hurricane formation will become impossible. The downside is that both schemes would require prodigious numbers of ships or barges stretched across the hurricane spawning grounds of the tropical Atlantic, at an astronomical cost.
A third fix builds on the idea that wind generators are capable of sucking the energy from a hurricane, thereby making it impotent. The problem lies in the staggering number of turbines needed—some 78,000 to subdue a category four (the second most powerful) storm. The largest concentration of marine wind turbines in the world today—in the North Sea—is just 1500.
For now, at least, then, such ideas find solidity only in the minds of their architects, and in the real world are very unlikely ever to see the light of day, stymied by cost and a lack of political will in a world where more pressing priorities take precedence.
So, what can be done about hurricanes and all the rest of the wild weather that global heating and the resulting climate breakdown are making the new normal? Rather than resorting to fanciful mega-scale geoengineering, the real solutions are far more prosaic.
Improved forecasting of extreme weather is the key, allowing timely evacuation from areas threatened by storm or flood. Eventually, governments will have to bite the bullet and order managed retreat from coastal areas increasingly threatened by a conspiracy of rising seas and more powerful storm surges.
As they are swamped ever more frequently, communities in flood plains will need to be relocated. Ever more intense and longer heatwaves will mean that air-conditioning at work and at home will become an essential if our cities are not to become abandoned and derelict.
Given the extra load this will place on energy production, transforming the way we build our homes is the only longer-term answer to the hothouse conditions that are coming; homes designed to dissipate heat naturally, not concentrate it.
The bottom line is that tackling the increasingly savage weather of a climate-changed Earth is never going to be about pie-in-the-sky tech solutions that seek to stop Nature in its tracks. Instead, it has to be about working with Nature, adapting, accommodating, and—where necessary—protecting or retreating.
But for such an approach to be effective, we need to be taking action now. In light of a new study forecasting that many countries face a big hike in heavy summer rainfall capable of driving devastating flooding, it is pure madness continuing to build in floodplains, but we still do.
In a little more than three decades London will have the climate of Barcelona, so we should be greening and climate change-proofing our capital now, but we aren’t.
Of course, the best way to fend off the worst of the extreme weather waiting in the wings as global heating continues to unfold, is to slash greenhouse gas emissions right now. But we’re not doing this either.
As is invariably the case, whenever society is faced with a threat that is diffuse and less than immediate, it seems that we will do nothing meaningful until it is too late to act and then just have to grin and bear it.