It's a Wind-Wind Situation

By Bekiempis, Victoria | Newsweek, April 11, 2014 | Go to article overview

It's a Wind-Wind Situation


Bekiempis, Victoria, Newsweek


Byline: Victoria Bekiempis

For thousands of years, humans have tried to control the weather. In the ancient Near East, people would plead for relief from storm gods by leaving amulets at special temples. Later, in Mesoamerica, the Maya had a go at weather manipulation--they tried to trigger rain by throwing women down wells.

As these strategies fell out of favor, science picked up the slack, with a bit more luck. For example, "cloud seeding," largely spearheaded in the 1940s by Bernard Vonnegut (the older brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut) entails adding chemicals such as silver iodide to clouds to encourage the development of rain droplets or snowflakes. In some cases, this method has resulted in precipitation increases of 10 percent.

That's a neat trick if you want to water your crops, but not much help if you hope to keep your house from being blown into a pile of matchsticks by a hurricane. Sure, scientists have kicked around ideas about controlling Mother Nature's most potent storms, but with little success. Over the years, there have been many stranger-than-fiction proposals, such as nuking the eye of the storm--which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says is suggested every hurricane season--and dropping a giant ice cube in the middle of the storm and filling the lower parts of a hurricane with smoke (the last was the epiphany of Daniel Rosenfeld and others at Jerusalem's Hebrew University).

A Stanford engineer's recent hurricane-taming pitch, however, seems more scientific than science fiction: wind farms. Mark Z. Jacobson, a civil and environmental engineering professor, has studied air pollution, climate and energy infrastructure with computer models for more than two decades. Some of his recent research involves developing a new energy plan for the U.S., involving mostly offshore wind farms. Shortly after Superstorm Sandy, he was giving a talk on this proposal in New York City when an audience member asked: "If you have a lot of offshore wind turbines, wouldn't the hurricane destroy the turbines?"

"I thought, Maybe not," Jacobson tells Newsweek. "I thought, We have an opportunity to find that out, because I have a model to actually check this.' "

While he wasn't able to put up turbines all along the Eastern Seaboard or Gulf Coast, Jacobson (along with Cristina Archer and Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware) could use data from several storms, including Sandy and Katrina, as well as mechanical data from other wind turbines, to predict what might happen if those shorelines had been buffered by wind farms.

They found that the farms could potentially reduce wind speeds by approximately 50 percent at landfall. How? When winds spin through turbine blades, some of their kinetic energy gets converted to electric energy. In theory, the extraction of kinetic energy from winds during this conversion process could actually slow them.

If true, that could make a pretty significant dent: Katrina, a strong Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, had 140 mile-per-hour winds at landfall. Most Eastern hurricanes are weaker, averaging somewhere between 74 and 110 miles per hour. Reducing them by half, Jacobson says, would mean those hurricanes would have only the force of tropical depressions or storms.

Jacobson's study also predicts that wind farms could shrink storm surge--when a hurricane causes waters along the coast to rise far above the normal tide, typically resulting in extensive flooding--by up to 79 percent, due to lower wind speeds. It's hard to calculate average storm surge--the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale stopped including surge in categorizations in 2010. But because storm surge is "often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane," NOAA says, less surge could mean less catastrophic damage.

Based on his calculations, a 100,000-turbine wind farm spanning from New York to Washington, D. …

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