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Microwave Storms: Full Of Hot Air

There have been conspiracy theories going around suggesting that Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan), which wreaked havoc in central Philippines last week, was man-made. This writer is not pertaining to scientifically sound speculations that Typhoon Yolanda’s unprecedented strength might be due in part to the effects of climate change, but rather to grossly outlandish claims that the super typhoon was caused by powerful electromagnetic beams that were released by human-made machines.

While these conspiracy theories should be easy to dismiss and do not deserve a lengthy rebuttal, what with the need for lending a helping hand to the survivors and all, it is unfortunate that such speculations were recently given media airtime as if they were somehow in the same league as sound scientific hypotheses. As such, a quick debunking is in order.

The following list is far from exhaustive, and is only meant as an illustration that the conspiracy theories are wrong by orders of magnitude. That said, here are some reasons why Super Typhoon Yolanda could not have been caused by microwave beams emitted by human machines.

Sorry fellow Red Alert fans, but not yet. [Image credit:]

Sorry fellow Red Alert fans, but not yet. [Image credit:]

1. Making clouds is like boiling tons of water.

To make a storm, you need clouds, lots of clouds. Since clouds are masses of condensed water vapor, you need to convert a lot of water (sea water, in particular) into water vapor. This is not an easy task, as water is a substance with an unusually high heat capacity and latent heat of vaporization. Translated in everyday language, this means that water is really, really hard to vaporize. Making large clouds thus requires a gargantuan amount of energy. Dozens of storms can form over warm oceans only because their source of power is no other than the Sun, which produces energy via nuclear fusion.

In science, a Fermi estimate is an order of magnitude approximation of a certain quantity. What follows is a Fermi estimate of the amount of energy required to produce a storm-sized cloud system. For a storm that rains down 300 mm of water on the central Philippines alone, this totals to approximately 56 billion tons of water. Now let us assume the temperature of seawater in the central Pacific to be evaporated is 30°C. The amount of heat required to convert 56 billion tons of seawater into water vapor, around 39 trillion kW-h of energy, is more than 500 times the energy consumed in the entire Philippines in the year 2012. In order to produce this amount of energy in a month (assuming it takes a month to create a typhoon), about 39 thousand nuclear power plants must simultaneously operate! According to the World Nuclear Association, there are only “435 operable civil nuclear power nuclear reactors around the world, with a further 72 under construction.

Peter Tyson of PBS Nova has this to say about the power of storms: “The total energy released through cloud and rain formation in an average hurricane is equivalent to 200 times the worldwide electrical generating capacity.” Just image if we are able to harness even just a fraction of this energy for the improvement of human lives.

The swirling vortex of clouds and wind that was Typhoon Haiyan. [Photo credit:]

The swirling vortex of clouds and wind that was Typhoon Haiyan. [Photo credit:]

2. Making rain is not cheap. 

Contrary to the popular joke, off-key singing is not enough to make it rain. Cloud seeding, the technique of dropping crystals into pre-existing clouds to cause rain, is expensive and difficult. Using data from the United Nations Environment Programme, the average cost of seeding is around $1.5/cu m/ha/season (this cost was in 1985). This places the Fermi estimate of the cost of seeding an entire storm at around $ 1.5 billion billion. This value is more than 140 thousand times the number of US dollars in the entire world as of July 2013, which, according to the Federal Reserve, was $ 10.5 trillion.


3. Storm formation involves planet-wide chains of cause and effect.

Even if you have the required amount of rain clouds, gathering all those clouds into a spinning, swirling vortex that is a storm is no easy task. Certainly, it is not a task that can be accomplished by manipulating a portion of the Earth only. The development of a typhoon might seem local at first sight, but scientists have known for decades now that storm formation involves complex interactions between a region and its neighbors over long periods of time. This is why the initial stages in the formation of a storm usually happens far from where it will first be spotted as a low pressure area or tropical depression. It is for this reason that scientists studying hurricanes in the Atlantic also study air circulation patterns in west-central Africa, and those who monitor typhoons in the Pacific also concern themselves with atmospheric conditions over China and Siberia.

The very, very tangled web of global air currents. (And that is NOT even the entire picture.) [Image credit:]

The very, very tangled web of global air currents. (And that is NOT even the entire picture.) [Image credit:]

The interconnectedness of the Earth’s climate systems means that one cannot isolate the north central Pacific and manipulate only its climate by releasing supposed EM beams in the vicinity of a low pressure area, as what the conspiracy theories will have us believe. We are still a long way from having the technology that will allow us to control weather in the macroscale, but from what we do know, future attempts to manipulate the weather must be global and not local in scope. (One way in which we humans affect, although not manipulate, the climate on a global scale is our inadvertent and uncontrolled changing of the climate through an enhanced greenhouse effect.)


4. The energy of the storm winds is immense.

Even if we ignore the many physical errors involved in supposing that a beam of microwave radiation can make a cloud system spin, the math of the energies involved simply does not add up.  Ignoring the stupendous amount of energy required to produce the storm clouds (see Item 1), the kinetic energy of the winds in an average storm amounts to about 36 billion kW-h per day. If, for the sake of argument, we pretend that a microwave pulse can produce a vortex in a low pressure area, the required force exerted by the beam would be equivalent to the force exerted by 25 simultaneous nuclear explosions per day. That is something no global conspiracy can hide.

"Let me unleash the power of a dozen nuclear bombs on you." [Image credit: Marvel Enterprises.]

“Let me unleash the power of a dozen nuclear bombs on you.” [Image credit: Marvel Enterprises.]

5. Coincidence is not causation.

Videos showing the emission of several microwave beams in the north Pacific region around the time of Typhoon Haiyan’s formation simply confuse coincidence with causation. The emission of electromagnetic beams around the same time and area as the formation of a typhoon in no way implies that the storm was caused by the beams. This is neither rocket science nor climate science, it’s just basic science.


Back to basics

As this writer noted in a previous article, Typhoon Yolanda reminds us that when it comes to our dealings with the natural world, we should all go back to basics. After all, an appreciation of the scales involved and the basics of scientific reasoning are not just handy in battling nutty conspiracy theories, they also can, and should, be used to save lives in the future. Now that we have this nonsense out of the way, it’s time to talk about solid science in order to mitigate the effects of future natural catastrophes.


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