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Dueling meteorologists

Superstorm on BBC1

Jennifer Rohn 22 April 2007

Unexpected turbulence: sniping scientists ring true

Increasingly frequent and virulent killer storms caused by global warming may be inevitable, but that doesn't mean we have to take them lying down. At least that's the premise of Superstorm, a new three-part 'lab lit' drama that began last weekend on the BBC.

In a near-future scenario, hurricanes have become so bad that the US government decides to assemble a crack team of scientists to sort it out. (The US government, turning to scientists for help? A refreshing concept). Not a stereotypical boffin amongst them, the resulting group are young, preternaturally good-looking and practically electric with emotional baggage – previous love affairs, personal vendettas and family tragedies. No doubt the producers designed these characters to impart maximum human interest as an antidote to the science. In parallel, the film is trying hard to look cutting-edge, with 24-style cuts and odd bursts of black-and-white and slow-motion meant to signal memories for the flashbacks. (Indeed, being set in Florida with this style, it is almost impossible to avoid looking a little bit like CSI: Miami.)

But the premise is compelling enough as it is: meteorologists given the chance to play god by intervening in hurricanes before they hit land. We are treated to entertaining scenes of planes flying through storms, breathtaking vistas of hurricanes seen from space and a clever 3D holographic storm simulation that the scientists use to model – and bicker over – their competing theories. There isn't one clear solution, but several: they could coat the oceans with detergents; they could use silver iodide to seed instabilities in the nascent storms; they could scatter carbon pellets to generate an artificial cold front to ping hurricanes away from land. Or, as the bitterly offensive ace computer modeller Lance Resnick (J.R. Bourne, looking like a cross between a Calvin Klein model and Hugh Laurie on House) advocates, they could do nothing, because any intervention could actually make the storm worse.

The science behind the various possible approaches is explained very well, using multiple strategies. There is the holographic model, of course, which is high-tech enough to be interesting but not so high-tech that it feels implausible. The scientists can perturb model storms with their favorite interventions and then let the scenario play out, given the audience a good feel for what experimentation is like. Yet we are not allowed to believe that reality is as straightforward as a virtual simulation, and Lance, for all his annoying traits, is a very useful character in that all the caveats inherent in the scientific method have been funnelled into him and made digestible via his prickly skepticism. When Dan Abrams (Chris Potter), the lead scientist, puts in a parameter that gives the desired outcome of storm attenuation – supercooling areas of the storm with the iodide – and gets a bit smug about it, gadfly Lance points out that it's very likely that in real life, you'd never get one hundred percent cooling. And when Lance asks the operator to key in only partial cooling, the storm's intensity actually increases. When another scientist protests that one of the simulation's results must be an artefact, he is taken to task and reminded that he was singing the praises of the model only hours before when it happened to prove his own theory right. The infighting is good – this is how scientists really interact, and dissent is one of the aspects of the scientific process that is so misunderstood by the general public.

Lance also reminds everyone of the most important drawback to storm intervention, as far as the scientific method is concerned: no matter how confident you are of your theory, if you meddle with a storm and get the desired effect, you can never know if this wouldn't have happened anyway. With hurricane mitigation, each storm is unique and there is no such thing as a control – another useful concept that the general public might find enlightening.

The second main strategy used to explain the science is a standard one of using ignorant characters who need to be briefed. What's interesting about Superstorm is the variety of levels of ignorance employed for this purpose. We have scientists of one speciality explaining things to scientists of another. We have scientists explaining to technicians: "I may not be a meteorologist," snipes computer operator Holly (Jana Carpenter), "but I'm not a total retard." We have the scientists explaining things to politicians, which requires a step down and a different spin; and we even have Lance explaining the project to the drunken bimbo draped over him in a bar. "Janet thinks that science is the new rock-and-roll," he sneers, as he proceeds to insult ever other member of the team and their hypotheses.

And the final strategy was the choice to chase the fictional episode with a companion documentary on BBC2, entitled The Science of Superstorms. I would never have bothered watching it if it were not for the drama, so hats off to the Beeb for this clever manipulation. All of the theories mentioned in the drama turn out to be ideas that are currently being considered, and by using the same graphics and terminologies and referring back to the fiction, we are completely primed to be drawn into the reality.

And yes, since you ask – I'll be watching Part II of Superstorm tonight as well.

Related information

Superstorm is currently airing in the UK at 9 PM on BBC1 on Sundays.