Did ‘microwave pulses’ create Yolanda (Haiyan)?

A video that has gone viral about 'microwave pulses' creating Yolanda (Haiyan) merely shows conjectures, not evidence, says an atmospheric physicist

There is a video making the rounds on the Internet about how Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) was created by “microwave pulses.” Attempts at weather modification – the intentional manipulation of weather disturbances – is not new in human history. Even until now, some people would attest to religious interventions on weather disturbances.

Scientifically, we know the conditions needed for typhoon formation, and by altering any or some of these conditions, it follows that there could be an effect on typhoons.

Some basic science first. Clouds are essentially made up of small liquid water particles. How small? It takes more or less a million cloud water droplets to clump together to form a single raindrop.

Two things needed for clouds to form in the sky: one, rising warm, humid air, and two, the presence of small particles, or aerosols.

The process of warm humid air cooling down up in the sky transforms water from gas to liquid, creating clouds. So why then when you leave your refrigerator open, clouds don’t form? Warm humid air around us is cooled down inside right? Yes, but it’s easier for water to condense if there is a surface to condense on, and that’s why water droplets form all over the walls inside your refrigerator. This is where aerosols come in handy: the particles in the atmosphere act like surfaces where water can cling, and cloud water droplets form more efficiently.

Manipulating weather?

To manipulate weather, in essence we need to manipulate clouds, either by doing something about the warm air, or the particles.

And because it takes a lot of energy to modify temperature, changing particle characteristics in the atmosphere is almost always the method used in weather modification experiments – cloud seeding.

Cloud seeding is the process of putting particles (usually silver iodide) in clouds to modify cloud formation to produce or suppress rain. In relation to typhoon modification, the cloud seeding method has been used in at least two attempts:

  • Project Cirrus. In 1947, Project Cirrus was the first attempt by the US military to modify a hurricane. Cloud seeding was done by an airplane that flew by the rainbands of a hurricane, and dropped crushed dry ice into the clouds. The hurricane changed its track after the seeding, prompting lawsuit threats from those that were eventually affected. However, a similar hurricane system 40 years prior took almost the same track as that hurricane, plus the fact that the hurricane was already changing its direction when the experiment began, made Project Cirrus inconclusive, it also stopped the litigation.
  • Project Stormfury. Project Stormfury was a project by the US government that started in 1962 and lasted for 20 years. The project used cloud seeding strategies to modify the inner structure of hurricanes. However, no considerable change was observed in the experiments that were done. Though the project was eventually scrapped, the experiments gave weather scientists a better understanding of the science and dynamics of hurricanes.

MEGASTORM. As Super-Typhoon Haiyan moved over the central Philippines on Nov. 8 at 05:10 UTC/12:10 a.m. EDT, the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured this visible image. Photo courtesy NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

There was a also controversial study in 1997 by a Dutch physicists named Henrick Svensmark. He hypothesized that cosmic rays from deep space are affecting cloud formation on Earth, thus affecting Earth’s climate. Although this has nothing to do with “man-made” manipulation, this shows the rigors of having the science community agree with what you say.

In his study, he showed a correlation between observed cosmic rays that reached Earth and cloud cover. The idea is cosmic rays affect the particles needed for cloud formation, in turn affecting the clouds themselves. However, other scientists replicating his work did not find any good correlation.

This violated an important rule in science: reproducibility.

Scientific findings should be repeatable whoever is doing the same experiment. More recent experiment by Svensmark in a controlled laboratory shows more promising results, but seems to be not sufficient to support his claims on the effect of cosmic rays on climate change.

Even with a sound hypothesis, a fairly decent experiment, his study is still not well accepted by scientists.

‘Microwave pulse’

Now, on to the YouTube video.

There are a lot of studies regarding microwaves and the atmosphere. Microwaves are used to send signals to a region of the atmosphere called the ionosphere. The ionosphere can reflect radio signals – in fact, this reflection can be used to our advantage by bouncing off radio signals to travel further. Hence the importance of studying this region of the sky.

Microwaves are also often used as a tool in observing other parts of the atmosphere. This is because microwaves are able to travel through the atmosphere without much resistance. It can pass though clouds, so it is useful in satellite observations as well. Most of the “facilities” shown in the video are for that purpose.

There are also studies of microwave pulses creating hot gases in laboratory settings. And I assume this is what the guy in the video (YouTube user “dutchsinse”) was referring to. I found no scientific literature on real world atmospheric experiments on this though, and a Google search on microwave pulses creating cyclones will inevitably lead you to his web page.

As I mentioned, manipulation of temperature is energetically very costly however efficient the method is. Even if we are able to change the temperature of certain parts of a cyclone sufficiently, temperature is just one of the many conditions needed for formation and intensification of tropical cyclones. And supposing all conditions are met, it still does not mean that a cyclone will necessarily form.

The video merely showed conjectures, not evidence.

Apophenia is when we see meaningful patterns in random things. Human beings are hardwired to see patterns everywhere, and in the past few centuries we use a tool called science to distinguish the facts from the senseless patterns.

The Philippines is in the path of tropical cyclones forming in the northwest Pacific Ocean. Statistically, the path of Yolanda is “normal” for our northeast monsoon season, and it just so happened that the right conditions were met by Yolanda to intensify to such a monster typhoon.

Moreover, our knowledge of the atmosphere is not that good. In fact a lot of what we know about clouds, about rain, about typhoons, about weather in general are just approximations, estimations of what they really are. This lack of knowledge is one of the major hindrance to a perfect or at least a very accurate weather forecast.

Effects of air pollution

As early as November 2, I already saw weather forecasts from different models showing Yolanda (Haiyan) to be a ferocious typhoon. If this was made by a “microwave pulse,” how come weather models were able to predict it?

In the recent decades, we, human beings, have also been inadvertently modifying our weather and climate system. On top of the list is the continuous emission of greenhouse gases, resulting to warmer surface temperature. Large cities are getting warmer compared to the countryside, since buildings and roads heat up more compared to grass and trees, in a phenomenon called the Urban Heat Island effect.

Air pollution is also affecting our atmosphere in a way that is changing rainfall patterns in most affected places. In Metro Manila, I am doing a study on this and results show that local afternoon rainshowers are now occurring at a later time extending until night time, and thunderstorm clouds are bringing more rain on us because of local air pollution mainly from vehicles.

Although cloud seeding would come close to weather control as there are many claims on its success, scientists are still unable to quantify rainfall produced from cloud seeding. Right now, there are still no methods that can be used effectively for willful control of weather that is accepted by mainstream science. – Rappler.com

Gerry Bagtasa, Ph.D. is an atmospheric physicist with the Institute of Environmental Science & Meteorology, University of the Philippines (Diliman). He also runs a weather forecast website www.weather-manila.com, a partner of Rappler.com’s WeatherAlert.