Science Questions

Could we dissipate a tornado with a rocket?

Tue, 23rd Feb 2016

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Jheanne Hugo asked:

Tornadoes like the devestating one in Oklahama feed on their own energy - wind force.

Can we dissipate or disturb that one-directional force by sending an explosive device e.g. a rocket, by whatever means, into the tornado ?

With today's sophisticated technology such as drones, surely it must be possible without it being flung out before detonation and endangering people's lives (which are in danger anyway)?


Stuart Higgins took a shot at answering Jheanne's question ...

Stuart -   I love this idea that, you know, you could put a little firework into it and it would suddenly fizzle out and the tornado would disappear...

Chris - I think heís actually saying put a nuke into it, actually, isnít he? I mean letís not do things by halves.

Kat - Thatís an extreme solution.  So would it work if you put a massive source of energy into a huge energetic tornado - would it work?

Stuart - Well itís a really difficult question, and the reason why itís difficult is because we still donít understand properly the complex behaviour of how tornados form and what's really going on. And one of the big problems is also, that if you try and put your scientific instrument in the way of a tornado to measure whatís happening inside - it doesnít last very long.

Kat - Oh yesÖ

Stuart - It kind of gets blown away by the wind.

Chris - But what do people think when they do theory - people have run models and things.  What do they think powers a tornado?  How do they think it works?

Stuart - So, at a kind of basic level thereís an idea that it requires a mixture of two different environments.  It needs moist, warm air meeting cool air and that will give the ingredients for a thunderstorm, and tornadoes usually form from a particular type of thunderstorm called a supercell.  And the argument generally is that if you have say a surface wind blowing in one direction and winds at a higher level blowing in another direction, you get this rotating funnel forming and that if you have an updraft you might turn what is a horizontal funnel into a vertical one where it touches down and becomes a tornado, so thatís kind of the theory.  Itís still very complicated - itís still not very well known. I wanted to do some calculations, I really wanted to try and work out some numbers but itís not really meaningful without a better understanding of what it is.  But this idea has come up a few times and Iím going to refer to the National Severe Storms Laboratory in the U.S., which is a government laboratory who study these kind of phenomena, and they mentioned that if you could get enough energy to dissipate the tornado, well that might work but, actually, the tornado is a fraction of the energy of the total storm.  So you might just end up with another tornado forming straight away anyway from the same stormÖ

Chris - Ah, so you might paradoxically detonate your explosion and trigger another one?

Stuart - Well yes.  Get rid of one and another comes straight back at you.

Kat - Yes, so itís like ĎWhack-a-moleí with tornadoes, basically.


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