How to Generate Tropical Storms: Just Add Phytoplankton

Mad scientists have been trying to control the weather for centuries, without much in the way of success. It's no mean feat (well, it's a little mean), wrangling the clouds into doing your maleficent bidding. But thanks to some recent work from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), I've come up with a weather-control scheme that's so simple, it'll turn the other mad scientists green with envy - while it turns the ocean green with phytoplankton.

Why phytoplankton? Because it turns out that the changes in ocean color caused by concentrations of these drifting plants and plant-like organisms could impact the formation of tropical storms in the Pacific Ocean, according to a recent study by Anand Gnanadesikan at NOAA.  Whipping up tropical storms to terrorize the Pacific Rim might have one easy step: "just add phytoplankton."

Using a computer weather simulator, Gnanadesikan compared the formation of tropical storms in the Pacific under today's phytoplankton concentrations to conditions without any phytoplankton at all. What he found was an overall decrease in tropical storms in a phytoplankton-free digital Pacific.

The mechanism for this shift lies in phytoplankton's ability to absorb sunlight, which heats up the water around it. Without phytoplankton, the sun's rays penetrate deep into the ocean, leaving the surface water cold. Cool water has less energy than warm water, produces less of the moist air needed to build up tropical storms, and allows for stronger winds that can dissipate thunderstorms before they turn into typhoons (what hurricanes are called in the Pacific Ocean). All of this adds up to a Pacific Ocean that is less exciting and deadly than the one we currently have.

And according to a recent study published in Nature, that calmer, more boring ocean might be where we're heading. Phytoplankton levels seem to have been decreasing worldwide for the last century, a trend whose continuation could lead to a decrease in the frequency of tropical storms.

But what if the trend reversed itself and phytoplankton concentrations started to increase? It stands to reason that increasing the phytoplankton concentration in the Pacific Ocean – or worldwide, for that matter – could increase surface water temperatures and generate conditions favorable for the proliferation of tropical storms. 

And a world wracked by weather that I've created would certainly be favorable conditions for my global takeover.

All I need to do is farm enormous quantities of phytoplankton in the world's oceans and watch as my verdant seas become breeding grounds for tropical storms. Voilà: large-scale weather catastrophes without any fuss. I told you it was easy.

Mad scientist Eric Schaffer has one index finger on the "fire death ray!" button and his other index finger on the exciting pulse of scientific research. His accounts of diabolical machinations, as well as research breakthroughs, appear regularly on LiveScience.