Weather Zombies: How to Kill Them

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A mile-wide tornado, photographed with an extreme wide angle lens, is seen near El Reno, Oklahoma May 31, 2013.
Richard Rowe/Corbis

The disastrous tornado season in the U.S. has revived a zombie of a weather topic: how to kill a tornado. A recent suggestion sparked a lively debate on one prominent scientific society's social media group. Could an explosion -- or powerful laser blast, focused on the "heart" of a newly forming tornado -- push a nascent twister upwards or kill it before it grows to destructive size?

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DCI

"There are all kinds of crazy ideas," said Robert Black, a research meteorologist specializing in hurricanes for NOAA. Black spoke to Discovery News under the condition that his statements and online comments were his own and not necessarily representative of his employer. "Some people think they are going to disrupt tornadoes at the ground. People seem to grossly misunderstand the scale of these things."

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Among the suggested ideas is to trundle out a small robotic rover, strapped with explosives to detonate under the forming tornado. But the idea is rife with problems, Black pointed out, not the least of which is how to get a rover into position as a tornado roves over hill and dale, without regard to such obstacles like fences and ditches.

And then there is that matter of scale, commented another researcher who cited estimates that the recent terrible Moore Tornado had the energy of about 600 Hiroshima nuclear blasts. Any attempt to disrupt such a tornado that is taking shape would require a blast at least on the scale of a small nuclear bomb. That's hardly the sort of thing people are likely to voluntarily let loose to fight a tornado. Not only would such a blast be potentially as dangerous as the storm itself, but no one would be willing to accept on the liability of such a strategy.

"If the tornado-kill device is an explosive and causes the storm to reroute from a sure hit on Town A - and ends up hitting Town B – seems like that would be wide open to a law suits," pointed out Edward Patrick, a research scientist at Southwest Research Institute.

However, said Black and others, the whole discussion of explosions is pointless because a tornado has no heart, and so you can't blow it so smithereens and stop it dead. Disrupting the point of low pressure at the center of the tornado's base, ignores the supercell that is generating the tornado in the first place, explained Paul McCrone, a U.S. Navy satellite meteorologist at Fleet Meteorology and Oceanography Center. The tornado starts around 4 kilometers or so aloft and works downward. So blasting anything on the ground does nothing to the power behind the twister.

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"The damage done in Oklahoma was heartbreaking," Patrick told Discovery News, "but I'm not sure what can be done. I know that explosions will not work, and for the reasons of scale I cited. Furthermore, what kind of defensive system would have such 'weaponry' available for delivery to the precise place in time and space (Kansas? Oklahoma?) to have any influence whatsoever on the tornado?"

In the end, the best defense against tornadoes is the one being pushed by the National Weather Service: be prepared. With the exception of the rare, most powerful tornadoes, most can be survived by staying put and hunkering down properly.

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