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6 Elaborate Plots to Prevent Tornadoes 

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Each year, the central part of America known as Tornado Alley is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Powerful twisters tear across the landscape, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. In 2013, more than 800 tornadoes were reported in the U.S., and at least 50 people were killed.

What if we could prevent tornadoes from forming altogether? Temple University physicist Rongjia Tao thinks we can. His plan comes in the form of three 1000-foot tall “great walls” built at strategic points through Tornado Alley. In a paper published in the International Journal of Modern Physics B, Tao explains that tornadoes spawn when northbound warm air meets southbound cold air to form supercells. These storms turn into tornadoes roughly 30 percent of the time. The walls, which would run east to west and be about as thick as a football field is wide, would “weaken or block such air mass clashes and therefore diminish the major tornado threat in the Tornado Alley forever,” Tao says.

Weather experts were quick to debunk the idea, but it’s not our first harebrained attempt at preventing tornadoes.

1. Giant walls around cities, 1896

A man named David Wechsler suggested that, since steel-framed buildings seem to survive tornado-strength winds, giant steel walls could be built to the west of big cities to serve as “windbreakers” that would offer “protection against the weather as old-time towns were walled against human foes."

2. Metal towers packed with explosives, 1897

For a long time, we were fascinated by the idea that we could blow tornadoes up. A French inventor called Turpin suggested the construction of a series of 120-foot tall towers topped with 200 pounds of explosives and a windmill device to measure wind strength. When the wind picked up to tornado-like speeds, the tower tops would explode and “destroy the tornado at once.”

3. Missiles, 1953

Col. Rollin H. Mayer with the American Meteorological Society suggested we build a tornado-detecting network that used radar and tracking data to warn us of an approaching storm. Reasonable enough. Then when the network spotted a tornado, “jet planes with tornado-destruction missiles would be standing by to destroy tornadoes before they destroy us.”

4. Cloud-seeding, 1958

One idea was to seed storm areas with “condensation nuclei,” or cloud seeds. These are tiny particles (usually silver iodide, potassium iodide, or dry ice) that facilitate rain and other forms of precipitation by letting water cling to them and go from vapor to liquid. Morris Tepper, a tornado expert, wrote in Scientific American that using cloud-seeding could “soften the fury” of a tornado by weakening the updrafts that feed them.

Actually, it can’t do much to prevent tornadoes, but the U.S. has attempted to use cloud-seeding to reduce the size of hailstones produced in storms. People also use it to reduce fog surrounding airports and to encourage snow near ski resorts.

5. Jet engines, 1972

An article appeared in MIT's Technology Review in 1972 suggesting we create "hot spots" to weaken tornadoes by affixing jet engines to the ground that would blow a bunch of hot air upwards. The theory was that the updraft could create clouds and maybe rain to suck energy from the storm. Minor downside: The jet engines could also accidentally create their own tornadoes.

6. Microwave-blasting satellites, 2000

A physicist in California named Bernard Eastlund has proposed launching massive solar-powered satellites into space that would spot thunderstorms and then blast them with microwaves. This would heat the storms and prevent funnel clouds from forming. “I want to snip off the energy that is feeding the formation of the tornado,” Eastlund says.

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The Coolest Meteorological Term You'll Learn This Week
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Two tropical cyclones orbiting around each other in the northwestern Pacific Ocean on July 25, 2017.
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What happens when two hurricanes start to invade each other's personal space? It's easy to picture the two hurricanes merging into one megastorm that tears across the ocean with twice the fury of a normal storm, but what really happens is less dramatic (although it is a beautiful sight to spy on with satellites). Two cyclones that get too close to one another start to feel the pull of a force called the Fujiwhara Effect, a term that's all the rage in weather news these days.

The Fujiwhara Effect occurs when two cyclones track close enough to each other that the storms begin orbiting around one another. The counterclockwise winds spiraling around each cyclone force them to participate in what amounts to the world's largest game of Ring Around the Rosie. The effect is named after Sakuhai Fujiwhara, a meteorologist who studied this phenomenon back in the early 1900s.

The extent to which storms are affected by the Fujiwhara Effect depends on the strength and size of each system. The effect will be more pronounced in storms of equal size and strength; when a large and small storm get too close, the bigger storm takes over and sometimes even absorbs its lesser counterpart. The effect can have a major impact on track forecasts for each cyclone. The future of a storm completely depends on its new track and the environment it suddenly finds itself swirling into once the storms break up and go their separate ways.

We've seen some pretty incredible examples of the Fujiwhara Effect over the years. Hurricane Sandy's unusual track was in large part the result of the Fujiwhara Effect; the hurricane was pulled west into New Jersey by a low-pressure system over the southeastern United States. The process is especially common in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, where typhoons fire up in rapid succession during the warmer months. We saw a great example of the effect just this summer when two tropical cyclones interacted with each other a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro pulled a fantastic animated loop of two tropical cyclones named Noru and Kulap swirling around each other at the end of July 2017 a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Typhoon Noru was a small but powerful storm that formed at about the same latitude as Kulap, a larger but much weaker storm off to Noru's east. While both storms were moving west in the general direction of Japan, Kulap moved much faster than Noru and eventually caught up with the latter storm. The Fujiwhara Effect caused Typhoon Noru to stop dead in its tracks, completely reverse its course and eventually perform a giant loop over the ocean. Typhoon Noru quickly strengthened and became the dominant cyclone; the storm absorbed Kulap and went on to become a super typhoon with maximum winds equivalent to a category 5 hurricane.

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Kelly Gorham
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Space
Balloon Cams Will Offer Unparalleled Views of the Total Solar Eclipse
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Kelly Gorham

The August 2017 total solar eclipse should be visible to some degree from just about everywhere in the continental United States—that is, if the weather cooperates. But now, even if it doesn't, everyone will be able to watch along, thanks to livestreamed video from balloon cams drifting miles above the Earth.

Astrophysicist Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University (MSU) got the idea to monitor the magnificent cosmic event from the air after reading about an airplane pilot's flight through the path of a 2013 eclipse. She thought her students might enjoy the chance to get an up-close look for themselves.

But what started as a class project quickly, well, ballooned. At last count, teams from more than 50 other schools had joined the Eclipse Ballooning Project. The core of the work remains close to home; MSU students have designed, built, and tested the equipment, and even offered multi-day training for students from other schools. Undergrads in the computer science and engineering programs even created the software that air traffic controllers will use to track the balloons on the big day.

Students carry a large white weather balloon across a tarmac.
Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium

The next step was to get the balloon cam footage to a larger audience. Seeing no reason to think small, Des Jardins went straight to the source, inviting NASA and the website Stream to join the fun. The space agency is now beefing up its website in anticipation of 500 million livestream viewers.

And what a view it should be. The balloons will rise more than 80,000 feet—even higher than NASA's airplane-mounted telescopes.

"It's a space-like perspective," Des Jardins said in a press statement. "From that height you can see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space."

Online or outside, Des Jardins says viewers can expect a kind of "deep twilight, with basically a 360-degree sunset" during the eclipse.

She urges everyone to get outside if they can to see the event with their own eyes, but expects the balloon cams will deliver something really special.

"On the ground, an eclipse just kind of happens to you. It just gets dark," Des Jardins told New Scientist. "From the air, you can see it coming and going. I think that perspective is really profound."

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