Ben Eastlund, a former head of nuclear fusion research for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, intends to prove that man really can play god with earth’s natural disasters, by fighting off the feared phenomenon, possibly with solar power satellites, and has performed successful computer simulations to demonstrate his theory.

Eastlund, whose home has twice been hit by tornadoes told New Scientist magazine that his theory was inspired by his plans for a Star Wars-style missile shield using microwave antennae in the 1980s. “While I worked on the antenna idea, patents were filed on everything that we might do with it,” Eastlund recalled in the 9 August edition of the magazine. “I saw that with so much power, it might be possible to heat the edge of the jet stream of high-speed winds that passes right over Alaska, altering its direction.”

Eastlund then realised that it would take a lot less energy to prevent tornadoes than he had initially imagined, and far less than it would to change the direction of the entire jet stream. “I chose tornadoes as an initial area of severe storm research because they are in the low range of storm energy turnover,” Eastlund said. Tornadoes normally start inside thunderstorms where warm, humid air rises through a layer of colder air. The air cools as it rises, so the moisture in it starts to condense. Eastlund thinks that this cold, rainy downdraft represents the necessary crucial flow of energy in forming a tornado, and that the heat created by hitting it with a beam of microwaves, might cut off the energy flow that allows a tornado to form.

The power source for the microwaves could be a network of solar power satellites equipped with vast solar panels, whose effect Eastlund simulated using a computer at the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms. “We got rid of the cold, rainy downdraft. We’re not sure why, though. It could be because the heat from the microwave beam slows the fall rate of the downdraft by providing buoyancy,” Eastlund said.

Paul Bryant, a physicist with the US Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington DC, told New Scientist that he found Eastlund’s computer simulations pretty convincing: “If you can heat the cold edge, it does end a tornado-that I’m comfortable with.” But he added that there would have to be accurate predictions of the tornado and the beam’s movements so that people would not be hurt.

Eastlund said that as long as the microwaves were correctly targeted people would be unharmed because water vapour would absorb almost all the microwave energy.

He added that he does not claim to provide the perfect solution to the tornado problem. “What I really hope I’m doing now is to put a new direction on the idea of weather modification. We need to get it to the stage where the idea is not laughed at,” he said.

According to the feature, in a typical year the United States is hit by over 1,000 tornadoes, and in 24 hours in May 1999 more than 70 tornadoes hit Oklahoma and Kansas, killing 46 people, injuring 800 and causing $700 million of damage.

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