Exchanges with Dr. Eastlund and others

In response to receiving a copy of article that he mailed to me, I sent him:

Dr. Eastlund,

I have read the article you sent, from the Proceedings of the "Workshop on Space Exploitation and Resources Exploitation". As I indicated in our phone conversation several days ago, I was skeptical going into this exercise. As it stands now, after reading the article, I suppose the word "appalled" comes to mind, but that might be a bit understated.

It seems that the failure of solar power satellite systems to be a feasible energy source puts them in the position of being a "solution in search of a problem". This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. However, this "solution" is expensive, dangerous, and the application of it as described to prevent tornadoes is unlikely to be economical even if all the other problems can be overcome. I am strenuously opposed to any further consideration of this concept.

Perhaps I am just another tree-hugging environmentalist (apparently, only a minor annoyance to those whose hubris can be covered up under the mantle of national security classification), but I find myself concerned about extremely intense beams of microwave radiation being aimed about the countryside. The consequences of a "miss" might be enormous. Even if it takes the intersection of two beams to reach full power, one beam's worth might well have all sorts of negative consequences. Even if the beams were intended to be a low angles to the surface such that they would simply pass through the atmosphere, what happens if a mistake occurs and the beam intersects the earth? Don't tell me it COULDN'T happen ... 3 Mile Island "couldn't" happen, either! This is the arrogance of engineers ... the consequences of a human mistake (a virtually inevitable result of human involvement) could be catastrophic.

Further, ignore for the moment that all my concerns about dangers from the beam itself. Suppose you could indeed apply this technology to the task of preventing tornadoes. You would, in effect, be dumping a pretty fair amount of energy into to the atmosphere, and preventing the release of a fair amount of energy (which tornadoes and tornadic storms do!). Just what might the consequences of this be? Is it entirely safe to assume that this is "local" weather modification? Just what does "local" mean in the atmosphere? EVERYTHING in the atmosphere is connected to everything else. If we prevent all tornadoes (or even a significant fraction of them), what will the response of the atmosphere be? If we can't predict the consequences accurately, IN ADVANCE (and we can't), then from where I sit, we shouldn't do this!!!**

And there's more ... Consider ignoring my concerns for environmental consequences of this exercise. Does this make sense economically? The number of reported tornadoes per year in the U.S. is roughly 1000 ... we probably would have to apply this "treatment" to ten times that number of storms in order to be sure to prevent all tornadoes, since we can't be certain which storms are going to become tornadic. What would a system to accomplish this task cost to build, maintain, and operate? If it is even the same order of magnitude as the annual damage cost of tornadoes (average: about $500 million per year in the U.S.), then it strikes me that it isn't a very feasible "solution" to the tornado "problem".

The little exercise you and XXX (name deleted to protect this innocent person) went through with the ARPS model is, of course, a meaningless test of this concept. Sure, IF you can dump that amount of heat into the downdraft of a thunderstorm, you certainly will disrupt its structure and evolution. This is sort of like testing the feasibility of making an omlette by showing you can smash eggs with a hammer! The technical questions associated with picking the right storms, far enough in advance to prevent tornado production with this "hammer" are significant. ... Showing that you can put this huge energy in just the right place, with NO "colateral damage" is another technical question of import. What the consequences might be of dumping this much energy ANYWHERE in a storm is yet another question ... if you disrupt the formation of one tornado, do you encourage the development of another storm, later? The only thing I see that this ARPS model exercise proves is that some people are willing to do ANYTHING for a price. I THOUGHT that after the experiment at Trinity site, scientists had finally developed a conscience. Just because something CAN be done doesn't mean it SHOULD be done.

To which he responded:

This (the paragraph indicated by ** above) is possibly the most relevent issue to your blanket objection. The National Academy of Science has addressed this and has issued guidelines for proceeding with any concepts relating to modification of weather and climate.

They say:

The kinds of steps that are recommended are:

1. Theoretical modeling and simulation analysis of the physics, chemistry and biology of the relevant geophysical, geochemical, climate and ecological system.

2. Study of potential for instability and chaos.

3. Smallscale mitigation experiments to determine physical, chemical and biological properties when they are known.

4. Detailed design, development and cost analysis of deployment systems.

5. Study of related natural events to understand their relevant properties including the statistics of their occurance.

6. Study of possible ecological, geophysical, geochemical and atmospheric side effects, including consideration of reversability.

I am completing a technical report which will recommend the above steps in any approach to tornadogenesis mitigation. Note, the work XX and I did, was precisely the recommended first step.

I also sent the following to New Scientist:

Your article at:


clearly reflects the now-obvious fact that Mr. Eastlund is trying very hard to draw attention to himself and his notion of "tornado busting" with what amounts to a media blitz. This scheme is popping up everywhere!

I have the following comments about his scheme:

I have had some experience with Mr. Eastlund, having had an e-mail correspondence with him on the subject of using satellite-based microwave beams to attempt to mitigate tornadoes. Hence, I am moved to react to this article about his scheme.

I have explained to him a number of possible objections to his proposal:

1. The consequences of missing his target could be substantial. I have my doubts that high-energy microwave beams would be without consequences if they miss their target. I see parallels in Eastlund's expressions of confidence in the accuracy of their aim to the overconfidence expressed in nuclear power generation prior to 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl.

2. The simple numerical simulations that have been done up to this point have merely confirmed the obvious: dumping large amounts of energy into a thunderstorm would disrupt it. This is not even close to a serious consideration of the likelihood that this method would work to prevent tornadoes, as proposed. Frankly, I'm skeptical that any scientist would actually believe that the simulations constitute anything even remotely resembling a serious demonstration that the proposed idea might actually work. The model Mr. Eastlund used did not, in fact, have the capability to simulate a tornado at all!

3. Given that we do not know the consequences (especially the unintended consequences, or "side effects") of preventing tornadoes through modification of their parent thunderstorms, even if it were possible actually to prevent them in this way (by no means is this assured, of course), it seems an act of irresponsibility even to conduct tests of such a scheme. Until we can be more confident in being able to predict the consequences such a project, prudence suggests we should not conduct such experiments. We might actually INCREASE the likelihood of tornadoes by doing this! [see below] I certainly cannot claim to know what might happen if even a small number of tornadoes were "prevented" in this way. If we don't know, but the potential for negative consequences is high, is this something that we should be doing? I think not. Mr. Eastlund seems determined to proceed as if preventing tornadoes is the only outcome of such an experiment. The history of technology is rife with examples of unintended, negative consequences!

4. Would the cost of such an effort actually be repaid in terms of damage and casualty prevention? The number of fatalities from tornadoes has generally been declining since the mid-1920s, to the point where fewer people die from tornadoes than from lightning annually. Is the proposed scheme really worth sinking billions of taxpayer dollars into, when the typical damage done annually by tornadoes in the United States is less than $1 billion?

5. Even assuming that Mr. Eastlund's idea works, given that there are roughly 1000 tornadoes per year in the United States, just how many of them does Mr. Eastlund propose to prevent? One percent? Ten percent? 100 percent? How would Mr. Eastlund know which storms to irradiate with his microwaves? Presumably, he'd have to be able to pick those which are about to become tornadic before they actually were tornadic. I don't know of any way to do that, at the moment, with a very high degree of confidence. Perhaps we could pick just a select few, on those few days per year (like May 3, 1999, during the Oklahoma-Kansas tornado outbreak) when it just might be feasible to make such distinctions. What about all the tornadoes on other days, when it's difficult, if not impossible to know which storms are going to be tornadic? If Mr. Eastlund proposes to prevent ALL tornadoes at some point, it seems to me that he's going to have to disrupt virtually EVERY thunderstorm, and even clouds that haven't begun to thunder. Now we are talking about potentially major impacts!

When I expressed my concerns to Mr. Eastlund, he seemed perfectly willing to brush them all aside, apparently because I can't "prove" that his scheme won't work, and because he seems determined to perform experiments in spite of the potential dangers. The fact that he might reap substantial gains if his idea were to be implemented seems to outweigh any prudence in such risky exploration. He continues to publicize his idea, apparently in hopes that someone, somewhere will bite and buy into the scheme.

I say that not every idea that can be conceived is worth even experimenting upon, if the potential risks are high enough. From where I sit, this is technological hubris that doesn't deserve further consideration until we can be a LOT more confident in what we are proposing to do.

Incidentally, a colleague of mine (Dr. Erik Rasmussen) mentioned that:

There have been no numerical simulations of tornadic storms that have faithfully reproduced the features of developing tornadoes. These features have been observed in recent field experiments such as VORTEX and its successors, and we have found that the "rear flank downdraft" is fundamentally important in tornado formation.

Thunderstorm downdraft dynamics are extremely sensitive to the concentration, type, and size of the condensed-phase water particles they contain. The current generation of cloud models, including that at CAPS, are not designed to fully model these "microphysical" characteristics. Hence, inadequate simulation of downdrafts and tornadoes.

Why is this important? Our recent research shows that it is _warm_ downdrafts that are the most likely to initiate tornadoes, and contribute to their strength and longevity. If you want to prevent a tornado, cooling the downdraft might be a better idea. To me, the downdraft-zapping idea seems more likely to _cause_ a violent tornado than to prevent one.

Perhaps in 5-10 years cloud models will have improved to the point of being able to correctly simulate this all-important "rear flank downdraft" that is associated with tornadogenesis. Until then, it is foolish to plan tornado mitigation based on inadequate numerical models.

I also agree with Dr. Rasmussen's point.

It seems to me that publishing wild speculation that has virtually no solid scientific basis is bordering on irresponsible journalism. I am not unwilling to consider new ideas, but (as Carl Sagan once noted) extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Mr. Eastlund's evidence is pretty far from extraordinary, but his claims certainly are! I'm disappointed that a magazine claiming to be the "leading weekly science magazine" would stoop to such a level of reportage.