Some questions come up frequently in conversations about hurricanes:
“Why are some of them weak, but others cause major disasters, like Katrina in 2004?”
The power of a hurricane depends on how much warm ocean water is beneath it, because water vapor is an energy source. But its impact depends on where it strikes.
Low-lying areas, especially ones below sea level, are prone to flooding. Much of New Orleans is protected by levees, artificially raised ridges intended to protect the land behind them.
I recall walking down Bienville Street during my first visit to the beautiful city. Beyond the area crowded with vendors and mimes demanding attention, there’s a steep incline. It was a surprising view to see the Mississippi River flowing on top, well above street level.
Here in Georgia, we’re used to finding rivers at the bottom, not in raised beds. The slightest breach in a levee will allow all the water to break through. That’s what happened during Katrina.
“Humans are blamed for climatic change. Can’t we change something in a positive sense, to keep hurricanes from pounding our coast?”
Climatic change is gradual and has effects that cannot be controlled by technology. Some places get warmer, some cooler, and others experience more severe storms than they did in the past.
Weather modifications like cloud seeding have been tried, but the results are questionable.
“Couldn’t we blow up a hurricane with atomic bombs before it reaches a shoreline?”
This radical approach would have consequences of radiation and fallout that are wise to avoid. On the weather side, though, setting up huge explosions in a hurricane would likely make the storm happier.
The spray caused by explosions would feed the system with extra water vapor, increasing its energy instead of decreasing it.
“Why don’t we fortify the U.S. coastline with concrete to absorb the wave energy?”
Beach-hardening structures like seawalls and groins have been tried for decades. But they only led to massive losses of beach sand, leaving nothing but concrete and wood posts behind.
Many states now outlaw seawalls because they destroy the natural beauty of the beach, which is the reason people like to live there to begin with.
At this stage in history, the best solution to hurricane problems is to consider housing at the beach to be temporary and to evacuate troubled areas when a powerful tropical system is approaching.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University.