Scientists' Research Attempts to Target Typhoons

An ambitious group of Japanese scientists sees one of the country's greatest climate threats as a massive opportunity.

By Tim Hornyak
Oct 16, 2022 5:00 AMNov 14, 2022 3:52 PM
Surging waves crash off the coast of Atami, Japan, ahead of the arrival of Typhoon Hagibis in 2019 (Credit: Kyodo News via Getty Images).


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This story was originally published in our Nov/Dec 2022 issue as "Targeting Typhoons." Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.

Taiga Mitsuyuki, a marine systems engineer at Yokohama National University in Japan, holds a small plastic model in his hands. The 3D-printed ship, sporting twin hulls and rigid sails mounted on an A-frame, was built to illustrate a seemingly impossible purpose. If a full-scale version of the boat is built, it could draw energy from one of nature’s most destructive forces.

Mitsuyuki and his colleagues have high hopes for such a vessel: the scientists want to make storm engineering a real prospect by 2050. Once deployed, these ships would enable the team to capture and store a typhoon’s energy with propellers and batteries. At the same time, an accompanying drone armada would inject a cooling agent into the storm, helping to weaken it.

This mission feels increasingly vital as storms hitting Japan — and much of the world — are intensifying. While the relationship between climate change and weather is complex, scientists believe that warmer seas are fueling stronger typhoons and warmer land surfaces are attracting them, leading to more frequent landfalls.

Researchers at the Japan Meteorological Agency also found that the number of tropical cyclones approaching the country’s southern coast, including Tokyo, has risen dramatically over the past 40 years. The annual average number that approached Tokyo increased by more than 50 percent over two decades, from 1.55 cyclones between 1980 and 1999 to 2.35 between 2000 and 2019, according to a Journal of the Meteorological Society of Japanstudy. Beyond that, the storms are strengthening as they near land and have slowed in pace, which can render them even deadlier.

That’s why, to counter this growing threat, the team of Japanese scientists launched Typhoon Shot. As well as attempting to harness a storm’s energy, the massive research project is dedicated to investigating whether or not it’s actually possible to tame typhoons — and mitigate the destruction often left in their wake.

This stunning image of Super Typhoon Maysak was taken from the International Space Station as it passed over the storm March 31, 2015 (Credit: ESA/NASA).

Deadly Weather

People have had to reckon with the raw power of Pacific storms throughout Japanese history. For instance, the infamous kamikaze suicide attack planes of World War II were named after “divine winds” that were believed to have sunk invading Mongol fleets in the 13th century.

More recently, the most destructive threat from the skies has come in the form of typhoons, tropical cyclones with maximum sustained winds higher than 74 mph. When Typhoon Vera made landfall in September 1959, a surface central pressure of 929 hectopascals was registered, the second lowest on record. (Tropical storms with lower pressure tend to be more powerful.) The tide reached a height of 3.89 meters — nearly 13 feet — in the port of Nagoya on the southern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, in a record storm surge.

Typhoon Vera, known locally as Isewan because it wreaked the most devastation on the Ise Bay region, left 5,098 people dead, 40,838 homes destroyed and 363,611 houses flooded. It proved to be the deadliest typhoon in Japanese history.

The catastrophe forced the government to not only pass an extra national budget to cover the losses and relief, but to establish a comprehensive disaster-preparedness system, codified in the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act. In the decades since Vera, Japan has also built stronger coastal defenses and more resilient housing and transportation infrastructure, as well as cutting-edge communications systems. The Typhoon Shot project, however, isunlike any previous storm-protection efforts the country has ever seen.

Mud covered tombstones in Nagano, Japan, after Typhoon Hagibis tore through the city (Credit: Taiga Mitsuyuki). 

Ambitious Ideas

In addition to sapping typhoons of their strength, the initiative also aims to harness their wind power as a form of renewable energy. With major private sector partners like Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting on board, backers are cautiously confident the researchers can realize their plan in the next few decades: Those behind the effort promise that they can turn typhoons into a “blessing” by around 2050, the project’s website claims.

“The idea behind the Typhoon Shot is based on the fact that typhoons have structures that are vulnerable,” says Hironori Fudeyasu, director of the Typhoon Science and Technology Research Center (TRC) at Yokohama National University, which was established in 2021 as the country’s first of its kind. “Computer simulations indicate that if we can chill the typhoon’s center, which is warmer than the surrounding structure, the storm will weaken. That’s a mechanism everybody understands. But how to do that is a very difficult question.”

Under the plan, drone fleets would swarm a typhoon from both the air and the seas, either to weaken it or draw power from it. The scientists hope to build autonomous aerial vehicles that could inject massive quantities of dry ice or other cooling materials into the storm to alter its temperature and structure. In a parallel effort, drone sailboats would capture the wind’s immense energy and later transport it ashore.

Fudeyasu is aware just how farfetched this goal seems. That’s why it’s named Typhoon Shot, after the U.S.’s so-called “moonshot”: In an accomplishment that seemed impossible at the time, NASA’s Apollo Program managed to put men on the moon in 1969. But Fudeyasu has nevertheless convinced the Japanese government, which selected the program as one of the Cabinet Office’s ambitious science initiatives aimed at benefitting the country’s people and the environment. Japan aspires to “a society safe from the threat of extreme winds and rains by controlling and modifying the weather by 2050,” according to the Japan Cabinet Office.

In addition to combating the threat posed by typhoons, Japan is also working to reassert itself as a global leader in science and engineering. Compared to the rest of the world, the nation’s share of publications in natural science journals has declined in recent years, and its government is keen to support researchers with particularly lofty ideas.

A train depot is submerged after the rain triggered by Typhoon Hagibis collapsed the banks of a nearby river. The storm caused widespread flooding in Japan and killed more than 80 people (Credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images).

Crucial Testing

The team’s early plan to control typhoons involves dumping a yet-to be-determined material with a cooling effect into the air. To compound that challenge, such a material must be harmless to the environment. Dry ice, the solid form of carbon dioxide (CO2), is one candidate. It could, in theory, cool down key parts of the typhoon. With dry ice, crystals of CO2 would act as nuclei for tiny, supercooled water droplets to freeze around, forming clouds.

Ultimately, this process disperses a vast store of energy that would normally contribute to storm damage.

“It may sound strange, but a typhoon is very delicate and sensitive to changes in its environment and structure,” says Kazuhisa Tsuboki, a professor at Nagoya University’s Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research (ISEE). A tiny difference can change the storm’s intensity or track, so identifying a highly sensitive point in the typhoon and modifying it could do the trick. But this process could take three decades to bring to fruition, Tsuboki says.

Computer simulations, however, can help. These models will guide research into what materials — and how much of them — will be most effective, along with where they should be deployed. The team hopes to use the supercomputer Fugaku, which earned the highest-ranked spot on the TOP500 list of fastest computer systems in 2020 and 2021, to advance the project. Completed in 2020 by the state-backed research center RIKEN and IT company Fujitsu, the system can perform 442 quadrillion calculations per second. “More computer power will give us more ideas and more room for testing different ideas,” says Typhoon Shot member Masaki Satoh, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute and a weather simulation research leader at Fugaku.

It’s unclear precisely how much computer power is needed to battle a super typhoon. But Tsuboki has both theoretical and direct experience to help answer that question. As head of the Typhoon Observation Lab at the TRC, Tsuboki has equipped some of the world’s most powerful computers to model typhoon behavior. He fondly recalls seeing the first high resolution modeling results on the Earth Simulator, the fastest supercomputer system in the world between 2002 and 2004.

When Tsuboki saw the typhoon’s individual clouds materialize, “the feeling was very similar to when Galileo saw Jupiter with his own telescope or Pasteur seeing bacteria through his microscope,” he says. “It felt like seeing a very different world.”

Tsuboki also indulges his passion for exploration outside of computer simulations. As an adventurous scientist who isn’t afraid of taking risks, he has flown into typhoons numerous times to take direct readings of their strength. On his first such flight, in 2017, a modified Grumman Gulfstream II jet penetrated Super Typhoon Lan, which reached wind speeds of 105 mph. Tsuboki entered the storm at 43,000 feet. He wasn’t even wearing a seatbelt; he was busy walking around the cabin to launch the dropsondes, airborne sensors dropped from aircraft that take readings of pressure and other crucial measurements. These sensors, about the size of a football, relay data to the craft before they hit the ocean. Their flight can take as long as 15 minutes; as air density increases at lower altitudes, they slow down.

Tsuboki insists on direct observation of storms because the computer models typically used to predict their behavior are rough estimates at best. For instance, one day the dropsonde data taken from the middle of Typhoon Lan indicated its central pressure was increasing, suggesting the storm was weakening. But on the same day, the Japan Meteorological Agency confirmed via satellite images that Lan was intensifying. Overall, says Tsuboki, both observations and simulations are key to understanding (and eventually modifying) typhoons.

Scientists can capture data from storms like Typhoon Lan using missile-shaped sensors called dropsondes (Credit: NASA/Lance/Modis).

Cloud Seeding

Typhoon control has never been attempted before, but efforts to rein in storms are nothing new. In fact, hurricanes were the target of two post-WWII U.S. government weather mitigation projects. (See the sidebar on page 38.) Called Cirrus and Stormfury, these ventures employed a method of weather modification called cloud seeding, the act of sowing clouds with small particles to alter their structure. Ultimately, both proved unsuccessful — and drew criticism.

“Observational evidence indicates that seeding hurricanes would be inffective because they contain too little supercooled water and too much natural ice,” wrote hurricane researcher Hugh Willoughby and colleagues in a 1985 paper published in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. That’s because such efforts would require plenty of supercooled water to build an additional eyewall — which would house a hurricane’s most dangerous winds and heaviest rainfall — to starve the original eyewall and weaken the storm overall.

Still, recent innovations like increasingly sophisticated computer simulations and sensing systems have made cooling typhoons far more plausible, says Yuei-An Liou, head of the Hydrology Remote Sensing Laboratory at Taiwan’s National Central University, although he remains skeptical of the cloud-seeding approach. Liou, who is not involved in Typhoon Shot, has co-authored several articles on typhoon behavior in the northwest Pacific, as well as on remote-sensing systems to improve typhoon forecasting.

After Typhoon Morakot hammered Taiwan in 2009, leaving over 600 people dead and over $14 billion in damages, Liou proposed a conceptual typhoon defense strategy: If deep, cool seawater can be pumped to the surface to reduce favorable conditions for a typhoon along its path or origin nearby, the storm’s strength may be reduced. This technique could even prevent it from forming. “It’s well known that the temperature of the sea surface affects the intensity of typhoons,” says Liou.

Human interference with typhoons doesn’t come without consequences, though. For one, it could disrupt nature’s own balancing systems, Liou cautions. Typhoons also offer some value, he adds, pointing to how they stir up nutrients from deeper layers to the sea’s surface to benefit marine species and fishing industries. They can also alleviate droughts.

Another skeptic is Tom DeFelice, a research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder and former president of the Weather Modification Association, a Utah nonprofit that advocates for cloud seeding. He has long studied the history of weather modification including Project Stormfury. While simulations may suggest controlling typhoons in such a way is feasible, DeFelice says, the reality is far more complicated. “The project’s conceptual video implies seeding could destroy the typhoon,” says DeFelice. “This is far from reality, and shows no scientific savviness nor knowledge of using the science to accomplish such an aim.” It’s currently impossible to wipe out a storm completely, he notes, although Project Stormfury suggested that cloud seeding can reduce rotational wind speeds by around 10 to 30 percent.

DeFelice does think some of Typhoon Shot’s aims could be possible eventually. Cloud-seeding technologies can work to redistribute precipitation from storms to reduce harm to human populations and mitigate droughts. They could also reduce wind destruction. Yet this is unlikely to happen before the 2080s at “very optimistic estimates,” DeFelice says, due to a lack of research funding and the limitations of today’s cloud-seeding methods.

For Willoughby, now a professor of meteorology at Florida International University, current technology won’t be enough to realize Typhoon Shot’s bold ambitions. “It’s a mid-20th-century idea dressed up with 21st-century gizmos — drones, supercomputers, etc.,” he says.

What’s more, cloud seeding mimics what nature can already achieve: Tropical cyclones that are strong enough to merit modification — with winds exceeding 164 feet per second — can naturally form a new eyewall around the original one, a process that generally causes storms to weaken. The impacts of natural forces are therefore indistinguishable from the expected results of seeding. In fact, cloud seeding may even worsen the damage from storm surge and freshwater flooding, says Willoughby. “Absent some new discovery, reviving Stormfury doesn’t seem promising,” he adds.

This specialized wind turbine in the Philippines was developed to generate electricity during typhoons (Credit: Challenergy Inc.).

Free Energy?

Critics aside, it’s easy to see why Typhoon Shot’s other wild ambition — exploiting the storms’ massive energy stores — is so tempting. Over its life cycle, the average hurricane can release the equivalent of 10,000 nuclear bombs’ worth of energy, according to NASA. In terms of total kinetic energy, it can release 1.3 x 1017 joules per day, about half the global electricity generation capacity. And when it comes to rain and cloud formation, a hurricane can produce 5.2 x 1019 joules per day, some 200 times the global capacity, according to an analysis by Chris Landsea of the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

In short, a staggering amount of natural, free energy emerges every year when about 85 tropical storms arrive from warm oceans. Around 45 of those grow into typhoons, hurricanes or tropical cyclones. But could all that raw power really be harnessed?

Typhoon Shot member Yutaka Terao, an emeritus professor at Tokai University’s School of Marine Science and Technology, has spent more than a decade researching how ships could draw energy from typhoons. In a 2007 paper presented at the Second International Conference on Marine Research and Transportation, he outlined how a fleet of 1,000 typhoon ships could supply all of Japan’s annual power needs, all without emitting CO2.The Typhoon Shot team took up Terao’s idea and discussed it with researchers in a range of fields who were interested in the initiative, says Fudeyasu.

One might imagine that the typhoon-targeting ships would be equipped with wind turbines to generate electricity. But that would make them inherently unstable and cause them to capsize, says Mitsuyuki, the Yokohama National University engineer. Instead, the ships may run on technology that’s decidedly ancient: sails and screw propellers. If built, each ship would have an onboard storage battery, autonomous and remote navigation, and the ability to return to land and offload the captured energy.

Assuming 20 typhoons occur near Japan annually, each typhoon generator ship with a large screw propeller could theoretically generate enough energy to power more than 30,000 average-sized American homes. “However, these are simple estimates and will vary greatly depending on the design and operation of the vessel, so further study is needed,” Mitsuyuki says. “We think that a lot of typhoon power-generation ships should be launched to make this a viable business.

For Defelice, the plan still raises major doubts. The project’s backers should be aware of the high cost and low chance of success, he warns. Even if a ship could be engineered to brave brutal wind, ocean waves and an entire hurricane, plenty of obstacles remain. For one, the project is currently confined to computer screens. Typhoon Shot’s first target is achieving higher resolution simulations — a necessary step before the team can attempt to reign in storms, team member Masaki Satoh says.

Moving forward, the scientists have their eyes on the long game. And Japan’s Cabinet Office and the Japan Science and Technology Agency are fully backing the project, having appointed Fudeyasu as project manager in April. Despite weather modification’s stormy history and various skeptics, the team remains convinced that they can mitigate the typhoon threat amid rising sea-surface temperatures and intensifying storms. “I want a future in which typhoons no longer kill people,” says Tsuboki. “Typhoon control or modification is like a dream of science fiction — but it’s not impossible.”

Tim Hoornyak is an author and journalist based in Tokyo, covering Japanese technology, business and culture.

The Fugal supercomputer was named after an alternative name for Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest peak (Credit: Aizawatadashi/Riken).

Simulating the Perfect Storm

Before they attempt to transform the weather, Typhoon Shot scientists must be able to simulate tropical storms’ intricate inner workings. Fortunately, they have Fugaku, which was named the world’s fastest computer two years in a row before a 2022 upset. The supercomputer is one of the few speedy enough to run the high-resolution typhoon simulations that will dictate the team’s next steps.

Specifically, computer models allow researchers to study primary and secondary typhoon eyewall structures, where winds reach their highest speeds. These are key targets in weakening typhoon intensity, says Masaki Satoh of the University of Tokyo. The goal is to form a secondary eyewall that swallows the first and reduces the storm’s intensity. To properly analyze these storms, the Typhoon Shot team needs a computer that can handle extremely high-resolution models. The Japan Meteorological Agency’s numerical models for weather prediction have a resolution of 1.2 miles, though Satoh thinks around half a mile or finer is needed to provide a far clearer view of cloud structures.

Fugaku could help bridge this gap. It can achieve over 415 quadrillion computations per second, over two times faster than the U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit machine that Fugaku dethroned from the top spot in 2020. Designers have likened Fugaku to having the power of 20 million smartphones in a single room.

The supercomputer was built at the RIKEN Center for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan, and completed in March 2021 after a decade of development that cost around $1 billion. Amid its assembly, Fugaku was put to work on the coronavirus pandemic. After an urgent government appeal, scientists who were planning to simulate fuel-injection systems for internal combustion engines quickly repurposed their code to model the dynamics of airborne virus particles. Since then, researchers have used Fugaku to develop AI models that improve tsunami flooding predictions and could potentially save lives. Now, the Typhoon Shot team hopes that Fugaku can not only predict natural disasters, but aid in transforming them, too.

A Brief History of Weather Modification

Typhoon shot arrives in the wake of multiple attempts over the years by the U.S. military to commandeer the skies. It all began after World War II, when General Electric (GE) sought to understand why ice sometimes formed on U.S. aircraft and disabled them.

To that end, GE scientists created the world’s first artificial snowfall by cloud seeding — releasing dry ice over a cloud — in upstate New York in 1946. In the resulting Project Cirrus, physicist Bernard Vonnegut (brother of author Kurt Vonnegut and part of the inspiration behind the novel Cat’s Cradle) enhanced the team’s snowmaking with silver iodide, a chemical compound that’s also used in film photography. GE proclaimed far-reaching applications of the research: “Making it rain, modifying hurricanes and clearing ground fogs near airports are some of the vital possibilities.”

It didn’t take long for the U.S. Navy and Air Force to supply planes for GE’s experiments. In 1947, a B-29 and two B-17s filled with 180 pounds of dry ice flew into a hurricane of the East Coast that was surging out to sea. The storm reversed course and hit Savannah, Georgia. Even though there was no proven causal relationship between the cloud seeding and the storm’s change of direction, the project was shelved amid a public outcry.

Yet the dream of playing God didn’t die there. Team member Irving Langmuir — a Nobel laureate who inspired Dr. Felix Hoenikker in Cat’s Cradle — made the cover of Timemagazine in 1950. His portrait was captioned, “Can man learn to control the atmosphere he lives in?” The U.S. government increased hurricane research spending amid a rash of storms making landfall in the mid-1950s. Then, in 1962, a joint effort between the U.S. Navy and the Department of Commerce dubbed Project Stormfury sent planes into hurricanes to seed the clouds with silver iodide. Scientists theorized that the iodide would freeze the supercooled water within the storms, creating additional elongated cloud and precipitation structures called rainbands to sap energy and lower wind speeds. While there was some early success when wind speeds were reduced in hurricanes Beulah (1963) and Debbie (1969), the results could not be conclusively distinguished from natural forces. The initiative later ran into trouble in the 1970s, when experimenting in the Pacific proved a diplomatic challenge due to the fear of seeded storms careening of their natural paths toward unsuspecting nations.

Stormfury was terminated in 1983, but that hasn’t stopped other dreamers. More than eight U.S. states and dozens of countries currently employ cloud seeding, which has produced modest effects in recent studies. Some nations are getting creative: The heatwave-ridden United Arab Emirates is currently experimenting with drones that zap clouds with electric shocks to trigger rain. But it isn’t yet clear whether decades-old techniques, along with newer, more ambitious technology, will make a significant dent in the fight against climate change.

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