Could Tornadoes Be Prevented?

Miles Dangerfield, 12, passes the time on a cold day by playing checkers with his brother Matthew Dangerfield, 13, in front of the Silverdale Target store on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006, in Silverdale, Wash., as they camp with others for a chance to buy a Sony PlayStation 3 console when it goes on sale Friday. AP/Kitsap Sun, Larry Steagall

"It sounded like a freight train as it passed right over us!"
That's a typical description of one of the most terrifying experiences on Earth— an encounter with a tornado.

Every year on average 100 people are killed by the 1,000 tornadoes that rip across America.

But, what if we could eliminate tornadoes?

As CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports, a former Star Wars defense program scientist— who knows he's regarded as something of a nutty professor— believes he has a way to tame the twisters.

"The basic thought," says Ben Eastlund, "is to find the right spot in one of the storms, the area where the energy is going into rotation and to change it."

Eastlund came up with his theory while brainstorming at his home in Del Mar, Calif., an area that never experiences tornadoes.

"It's suspected that a tornado forms between a hot updraft and a cold, rainy downdraft. Now, with microwaves, I could heat that cold, rainy downdraft."

The job would be done with a 500-foot wide beam of microwave energy aimed toward Earth from an orbiting satellite.

But will it work? Not everyone agrees.

"The trouble with all these schemes, beaming energy from space down into storms, is we're not certain how well they'll work," says Stephen Schneider, a global warming expert at Stanford University.

Despite the fact that it worked on a computer model, critics say Eastlund's unproven, untested theory could actually make tornadoes worse.

"We really don't understand supercells enough to start fooling around with things like this," says John Monteverdi, a meteorologist at San Francisco State University.

But one thing is already known. In order to achieve its mission, Eastlund's microwave beam would be intense enough to explode birds and cripple airplanes in its path. So precision targeting and warning systems would be a must.

Critics, like Schneider, say that's hardly reassuring. "If you're gonna start playing with the system and monkeying around, you'd better have a fund to pay those people who get hurt when anything goes wrong."

But if Eastlund is a scientist on the edge, he has good company. His research is funded by the European space agency. And scientists at both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Sandia Labs, the New Mexico home to Defense Department research, believe it may be worth exploring even if it proves to be impractical.

So what's next? If NASA gets on board, Eastlund hopes to test his theory from the international space station. Zapping water spouts in the open ocean and then taking on a tornado to see if you really can microwave Mother Nature.


  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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