THE PAST SIX MONTHS have been a disaster-as far as nature is concerned. Torrential rain in California, immobilizing ice in the Northeast, killer tornadoes in the South have all rattled the nation's prevailing sense of well-being. In fact, this decade has been packed with earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, floods and fires. With global warming expected to make violent storms even more common in years to come, and earthquake watchers still awaiting the Big One, we can pretty much forget about 2000's being the start of the mellow millennium. Is there anything we can do to ward off an angry Mother Nature?
We certainly can't stop her from acting up. In the '70s, a few wacky geniuses tried to control earthquakes and hurricanes by pumping water into faults to lubricate their movement and seeding hurricanes with silver nitrate to disperse their energy. You can see how well that worked. The only real hope is in trying to predict the earth's nastier behavior. But there are frustrations.
Earthquakes are theoretically foreseeable, but major ones happen so infrequently that scientists can't collect enough data to analyze the sequence of events that turns stress on a fault line into a killer quake. And you don't bump into many experimental seismologists, for obvious reasons. "Any time you generate an earthquake," jokes USC geologist Tom Henyey, "people get on your back." Seismologists can tell us which regions of the country are prone to earthquakes, but when it comes to specific quakes, the best warning they can give us is "an earthquake is going to hit - now."
Don't we at least have tornado sirens? Yes, but they don't always work. Just because more tornadoes develop in the continental United States than anywhere else in the world doesn't mean they're easy to study. It's all a matter of being in the right place at the right time, according to University of Oklahoma meteorologist Joshua Wurman, who covers some 20,000 miles each spring chasing tornadoes with his truck-mounted Doppler radar systems. The storms tend to form and dissipate quickly. Even with a setup that's "cooler than 'Twister'," it's common for Wurman and his team to "take a pummeling and still not get any data. …