October 11, 2005
World Helpless Against Assaults of Nature
WASHINGTON -- In a more hopeful time, buoyed by the promise of science, it was thought hurricanes could be tricked into dispersing, earthquakes could be disarmed by nuclear explosions and floodwaters held at bay by great mounds of dirt.
Such conceits are another victim of a year of destruction.
Rich and poor nations have taken the hit over a period so twisted in nature's assaults that one month, rich is helping poor and the next, poor is helping rich as best it can, and then the poor gets slammed once again.
The United States, giver of tsunami aid in December, accepted hurricane aid from some of those same countries in September. Now it is giving to South Asia a second time, in response to the weekend earthquakes. India is sending tents, food, blankets and medicine to its foe, Pakistan, geology briefly shoving aside geopolitics.
More than 176,000 people died in the earthquake and tsunami of December; an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 in the quake Saturday; perhaps 1,000 or more in Guatemalan landslides last week; more than 1,200 in Katrina. Asian beaches, mountainous Kashmir villages and American urban streets and casinos all were overwhelmed.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
After World War II, nothing seemed too far-fetched for science, not once the atom was split and, again, not once men stepped on the moon.
In one of the most enduring efforts, still alive but hardly about to happen, man thought he could seed clouds, make it rain reliably and put a stop to devastating drought.
The effort continues, especially in China; there, rockets, anti-aircraft guns and aircraft regularly pelt the sky with chemicals. The results so far: China has lots of experience, but limited success, in making the rains come.
If humans are inexorably warming the globe, they've proved unable to fine-tune the megaforces to their benefit.
They can cause earthquakes, little ones, by injecting fluids into deep wells, filling huge reservoirs with water or setting off nuclear explosions, but they can't prevent any, says the U.S. Geological Survey. Any notion of "lubricating" tectonic plates to relieve destructive tension would only make things worse, if it made any difference.
Earthquakes can't be forecast, either. Danger zones and long-term probabilities can be surmised, but "there currently is no accepted method to accomplish the goal of predicting the time, place and magnitude of an impending quake," the survey says.
The idea of hauling icebergs to hurricane-prone waters to cool things off did not fly. Research continues on trying to fool hurricanes into thinking they're over land.
One trick being tested: coating the ocean with a thin, biodegradable, oily film to deny a hurricane the evaporation that feeds its fury, in essence mimicking conditions after landfall.
One of the responses to Hurricane Katrina was decidedly lower tech: Civil engineers proposed putting up old-fashioned air raid sirens so people would know to get away.
The belief persists that humans will someday be able to dial up a thunderstorm at will, tweak the jet stream to avoid floods and starve a tornado of its energy once it starts spinning.
Such faith is reflected in a decade-old report done for the U.S. Air Force, on the possibilities of modifying the weather for military advantage.
The study suggested extreme examples of made-to-order weather, such as steering severe storms to particular areas or achieving large-scale climate change, were beyond reach over the next 30 years. But kicking up fog, rain and clouds was considered doable in that time.
The Air Force said later it did not plan to meddle with Mother Nature. The study, subtitled "Owning the Weather in 2025," came to little.
A decade later, the weather still owns us.