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Wednesday, August 26, 1998 Published at 23:31 GMT 00:31 UK

World: Americas

Getting to the eye of the storm

Hurricanes are the number one cause of death through natural disaster and have the potential to devastate the world's insurance markets.

They occur when hot and wet tropical air collides with cooler and dry air, causing winds of more than 74 miles an hour.

At its centre is a calm sunlit eye, measuring tens of kilometres across.

Tropical storms were given women's names until 1978, but then US weather forecasters bowed to political correctness and agreed to alternate them with men's names.

One of the worse hurricanes was Andrew in 1992, which killed 54 people and left insurance companies in the UK with a 15bn bill.

The worst British hurricane was the Channel Storm of November 1703, in which 8,000 people were reportedly killed.

Bonnie is the first hurricane of the season in the United States, which runs from mid-August until November.

This year has been terrible for natural disasters in Florida - a record 38 people died after 12 separate tornadoes tore through the state in February.

The spate of hurricanes and other weather-related catastrophes has been blamed by some meteorologists on the El Nino phenomenon.

Can nature's weapon be stopped

In 1962 the US government began to look at ways of how to weaken hurricanes, but the project ended without results in 1983.

[ image: One idea to beat the hurricane is to put a huge tin foil mirror in space]
One idea to beat the hurricane is to put a huge tin foil mirror in space
However, one of the world's leading hurricane scientists, Hugh Willoughby, still believes there just might be a way of disrupting hurricanes.

Hurricanes keep going by moving across warm sea water and absorbing heat from it, which keeps recirculating down the storm's eye driving the winds.

One idea which scientists are looking at is to put black soot into the air by burning petroleum on ships near a hurricane.

Black absorbs heat from the sun which would then create updrafts to break up the hurricane's normal wind patterns.

Mr Willoughby has even considered a big tin foil mirror in space to reflect sunlight to heat the ocean in just the right spot to divert a hurricane.

He says scientists are taking these ideas seriously because they think if they could cut hurricane winds by 10% or 15 % it could prevent many billions of dollars of damage.

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