Order out of Chaos-Harnessing the Power of Nature

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ph.D speaks on a recent segment of NBC’s Today show with Willie Geist. The particular thrust of Dr. Tyson’s remarks centered on the importance of science in a world that has become increasingly uncertain but yet, more reliant on technology.


In a recent segment of NBC’s “Today” show, friend and Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson aside from giving us a tour of his office, a glimpse into his life growing up in New York and the “inner sanctum” that is his office at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, he quite candidly expressed his frustration at how we, as a nation, regionally and a technical society, more globally, have lost our way and no longer apply our considerable scientific and engineering prowess to solve problems but, instead, cower when confronted by them and run away. In speaking of the current retreat from rationality spectacularly unfolding now in the US, coupled with the widespread disease of scientific illiteracy and denialism, Neil quite plainly states “that is not the country I grew up in”. In another segment he describes willful ignorance, the disregard for established science regarding climate change and the failure to make policy decisions based on that science as “the unraveling of an informed democracy“.

At the segment’s 4:12 minute mark, he takes aim at the reflexive and oft encouraged retreat from danger. Rather than confront it and attempt to engineer a solution, or at least try to mitigate its effects and/or adapt to it, we cower in its face and retreat. Neil makes particular reference to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria as it made landfall on Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane, openly musing about the dearth of engineers and scientists to tap the cyclonic energy of the hurricane.  In spite of this president’s delusional rhetoric to the contrary, that we have lost the will and/or ability to adapt and overcome couldn’t be more stark, manifest in the appalling and shameful response of this government to the plight of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

To Neil’s call to “tap the cyclonic energy of the hurricane“, we propose the following calculation and solution. Before we continue though, it should be pointed out that hurricane Maria was the third of three “100 year” hurricanes in a row to strike the Caribbean Archipelago and US Southeast. Since the principal source of a hurricane’s energy is a warm sea, the hurricanes will, as continuously predicted now for decades, become stronger as the sea continues to warm in response to climate change. Most of the excess heat energy driving climate change is contained in the sea, a fact that will continue to produce ever more powerful hurricanes, cause methane hydrate to thaw into solution at depth, cause the increased flooding of low-lying and coastal regions and the continued depletion of the polar regions, glaciers and ice caps.

A Hurricane is, to a first approximation, a giant heat engine, obtaining its heat input from the warm, humid air over the tropical ocean, and releasing this heat through the condensation of water vapor into water droplets in deep thunderstorms of the eyewall and rainbands, then giving off a cold exhaust in the upper levels of the troposphere. A hurricane has two energy outflows and one inflow and it is imperative that we determine the magnitude of those energy flows and thus,  the energy released.

One can look at the energetics of a hurricane in two ways:

Method 1: the total amount of energy released by the condensation of water droplets

Method 2: the amount of kinetic energy generated to maintain the strong horizontal winds of the hurricane.

It turns out that the vast majority of the heat released in the condensation process is used to cause rising motions in the thunderstorms and only a small portion drives the storm’s horizontal winds! This may seem counter-intuitive given the destructive nature of the horizontal winds.

The energy released by each of the two methods:

  1. 6.0 x 10^14 (600 trillion) watts! This is equivalent to ten times the energy yield of the atomic weapon unleashed on the population of Hiroshima at the close of WWII and 200 times the daily, world-wide electrical generating capacity!
  2. For a mature hurricane, the amount of kinetic energy generated is equal to that being dissipated due to friction. The kinetic energy released by the horizontal winds of a category 1 hurricane (150 kph) is 1.5 x 10^12 (1.5 trillion) watts! This is equivalent to 12% of the energy yield of the Hiroshima blast and 1/2 the daily world-wide energy requirement.

Remarkably, our result shows that a hurricane’s destructive wind energy is less than 1% of the total energy released by a category 1 storm! Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and the US States of Florida & Texas each sustained the onslaught of a Category 4 hurricane. The kinetic wind energy released varies as the third power of the wind speed! Thus, a Cat 4 storm has (155/90)^3 or 5x the destructive force of a category 1 storm!

Now that we have a handle on the energies involved, we can speak to Neil’s call to tap the cyclonic energy of the hurricane. We could, theoretically, transform a small amount of the hurricane’s wind and forward kinetic energy into electrical energy with the installation of an expansive wind farm, deployed systematically throughout the Caribbean and Gulf regions. The largest capacity, direct drive wind turbines currently available are rated at 10 M (mega) watts maximum output. To dissipate 1% of a category 1 hurricane’s destructive wind energy, we would need [(1.5×10^10 w)/(1×10^7)] = 1,500 turbines; to dissipate 10% of the energy we would need 15,000 turbines, etc. That sounds like a tall order but the output of 1,500, 10 MW turbines is 15 G (giga) watts or enough energy to power the entire world for about 10 minutes and the installation is permanent! As well, storage and battery technology has improved dramatically and it isn’t too hard to imagine Puerto Rico being reliably powered in full, ironically(!), by stored wind energy! This would go a long way in meeting regional energy needs and perhaps, prevent the formation of storms that would otherwise produce a hurricane. In addition, it could lead to lasting regional partnerships, support and international cooperation. And who said you can’t stop a hurricane?


Numerous studies have shown that we rose to become the dominant species on the planet as a result of three particular traits, two of which were heretofore unseen in the animal kingdom:

  1. our ability as mammals to adapt to a changing environment. Although they evolved alongside the dinosaurs during the their 135 Myr reign, remaining demure and otherwise invisible, lest they fall prey and vanish, mammals were able to adapt when the dinosaurs, already evolving beyond sustainability, could not. The K-T asteroid event that marked their end and the end of the Cretaceous period, also marked the ascent of the class Mammalia! I fear that we are losing that ability, the ability to adapt and survive.
  2. our nature to function as a group, to defend and protect the weak and to succeed as a team. During the Pleistocene epoch, leading up to the prehistoric Neolithic period, this trait often prevented an injured or sick member of the community to fall prey to predators and thus survive. This innate tendency to function as a group has allowed us to teach and protect the young and pass on our knowledge and experience to the next generation, building on the successes of the past and, combined with the development of language, has allowed our intellect to expand and grow! So, yes, it does take a village to raise a child!

We have to get back on the rails and find our way again, lest we go the way of the dinosaurs. Although they’re getting stronger, we’ve been coping with hurricanes for centuries now and have grown to expect them and have learned how to mitigate their impact somewhat. What we need to ponder is a natural catastrophe an order of magnitude greater than a category 5 hurricane, a catastrophe such as an asteroid strike. If such an asteroid strike should occur, even an asteroid half the size of the K-T asteroid, it would be a borderline extinction event. If FEMA’s response to Hurricane Maria is any indicator, we wouldn’t fare too well.

We put a man on the moon 7 times between 1969 and 1974. Imagine what we could accomplish now with the available technology and a globally interconnected world united as a single, unified force to solve the energy crisis, world hunger and disease. We would have become that vision Ronald Reagan spoke so glowingly of, that shining city on a hill, not as a single nation, but a united world.

As a side note, Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Radio Observatory survived with minor damage and began limited observations on 29 September, observations that included pulsar timings!

A follow-up blog post to come shortly discussing the US Department of Energy’s moral imperative to lead by example and address the looming energy crisis, not through the use of coal and other retrograde energy sources and not even through the use of fission reactors but to harness the energy of the stars, nuclear fusion.

*Featured image: Hurricane Maria imaged in color enhanced infrared, 19 September, 2017, 1 day prior to making land fall on Puerto Rico.


Imagination is more important than knowledge

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have

An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.

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