Bill Gates takes on hurricanes

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:49 PM GMT on July 27, 2009

Share this Blog
7
+

Bill Gates thinks big. His charitable foundation has poured $1 billion into the fight against that great scourge of humankind, malaria, resulting in the creation of a new vaccine that is 100% effective in mice, and is now headed towards trials in humans. If successful, Gates' efforts have the potential to save millions of lives. Gates has also turned his attention to another great scourge of humankind, the hurricane. In a 2008 patent filing that recently came to light, Bill Gates and his friends presented a scheme for reducing the strength of hurricanes by cooling sea surface temperatures, using a fleet of ships that bring up cold water from the depths. Can Gates really pull this off? I don't think so. The obstacles are fourfold: technical, financial, environmental, and legal.


Figure 1. A diagram from a 2008 Bill Gates patent filing, depicting an array of hurricane-control vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. Image credit: techflash.com.

Technical issues
While modification of hurricanes is theoretically possible, the scale of the undertaking is truly enormous. A fleet of dozens or hundreds of ships spanning a huge swath of ocean would be required, and these ships would have to be able to withstand the 50-foot waves and 160 mph winds a major Category 5 hurricane could deliver. As I discussed when a similar scheme was proposed in 2006 by Atmocean, Inc., it is not clear how long the cold water pumped to the surface will stay there--the cold water pumped to the surface is more dense than the water beneath it, and so will tend to sink, allowing warmer water beneath to replace it and warm the surface waters again. Modeling studies and field studies are needed to determine if the cold water can stay at the surface long enough to significantly affect a hurricane. Furthermore, simply cooling the ocean may have no effect on a hurricane, if the storm is in a favorable upper-atmospheric environment with low wind shear.

Financial issues
Any hurricane modification effort is going to be tremendously expensive. The cost of the array of cooling pumps proposed by Atmocean in 2006 for the Gulf of Mexico was pegged at $2.4 billion. Gates' scheme would have a similar cost. He proposes paying for it through government funding and the sale of insurance policies in hurricane-prone areas.

Environmental issues
A large change to the ocean temperatures over a wide area of ocean is bound to have significant--and unknown--impacts on fisheries and wildlife. Regional weather patterns may also be affected, intensifying droughts or bringing heavy rains and flooding.

Legal issues
Hurricanes naturally make sudden unpredictable course shifts, and the hurricane modification efforts are also capable of causing track shifts in a storm. Residents on the coast hit by the modified storm will want to sue, and there will be many lawyers more than happy to take their case. Gates would have to get special legislation passed to protect his company from lawsuits, such Congress passed for the gun industry in 2006.

Summary
In summary, we simply don't know enough about hurricanes yet to safely engage in modifying them. A lot more research is needed before we should spend the huge sums needed to attempt hurricane modification. The Department of Homeland Security has a $1 million research effort going that will attempt to answer some of these questions, called HURRMIT (The Identification and Testing of Hurricane Mitigation Hypotheses). The HURRMIT program is evaluating the potential of a number of hurricane modification techniques, including:

Seeding with tiny hygroscopic aerosols to suppress warm rain (Rosenfeld et al. 2007 and Cotton et al., 2007)

Seeding with radiation-absorbing aerosols (i.e., carbon black) at the storm periphery (Gray et al., 1976)

Seeding with radiation-absorbing aerosols (i.e., carbon black) at storm top (Alamaro et al., 2006)

Pumping cool water from the depths to the ocean surface in front of the hurricane (Ginis and Kithil, 2008)

Frankly, I'm dubious that the money being spent on HURRMIT is worth it, given the four huge obstacles to hurricane modification I presented above. However, the research may provide some new insights into hurricane intensification that we don't have now.

For more insight on this issue, read the Washington Post article published on this subject earlier this year.

In closing, I'll present the proposal one reader of an New Orleans online newspaper had:

"[Bill Gates] should just have one of his employees write an ActiveX Script for Google maps so we can just highlight the hurricane, right click on it, then select delete. Or maybe just cut and paste it farther out into the Atlantic Ocean."

Controlling hurricanes, Hollywood style
Hollywood's latest attempt to create a weather disaster epic is itself a disaster, as many of you who suffered through last night's installment of "The Storm" miniseries on NBC will agree. The uninspired plot involves government/military bad guys and a noble scientist who heroically tries to save the world, with a good measure of made-for-TV chase scenes, murders, and special effects thrown in. The hero scientist Dr. Jonathan Kirk (James Van Der Beek) has a scheme whereby one can control the weather by bouncing crackling streams of energy from a ground-based array of dishes off of satellites and into the ionosphere, which then gets "peeled away like an onion". Dr. Kirk then uses the energy to bring life-giving rains to the Sudan, and to steer a hurricane away from Florida. The trouble is, he doesn't quite have things figured out. Unintended side effects occur, such as the Mojave Desert getting 8 inches of snow the day after 112°F temperatures. More problematically, the hurricane heading for Florida strengthens instead of weakening. In one scene, a radar animation of the hurricane off the coast of Florida shows the powerful storm spinning clockwise instead of counter-clockwise, defying the laws of physics. Hmm, that's some pretty powerful weather control technology! The scientific basis for the weather control scheme is preposterous--ground-based energy streams beamed into the ionosphere would not appreciably affect the weather. The weather is made in the troposphere, the layer of atmosphere closest to the ground. Furthermore, the amount of energy needed to cause the kind of disturbances portrayed in the movie are enormous, similar in scale to the entire electrical output of the world. A small array of ground-based dishes could only channel perhaps a trillionth of the amount of energy required. The movie's special effects are cheesy, the acting average, the plot weak, and the science behind the the story completely implausible, making this weather disaster movie as disastrous as the equally rotten Day After Tomorrow movie. The movie's main redeeming grace is as a cautionary tale--weather modification on a large scale will certainly have unintended side effects, and we should not engage in such efforts until we have a much greater understanding of how the weather and climate work.

Scientific American has an interesting article that talks about the proposed Bill Gates hurricane modification idea in more detail.
Jeff Masters

Reader Comments

Comments will take a few seconds to appear.

Post Your Comments

Please sign in to post comments.

or Join

Not only will you be able to leave comments on this blog, but you'll also have the ability to upload and share your photos in our Wunder Photos section.

Display: 0, 50, 100, 200 Sort: Newest First - Order Posted

Viewing: 1463 - 1413

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39Blog Index

Quoting Patrap:
That would be the Sun..?

LOL..

Very nice one-liner. I'm impressed. (not that I expected different, though)
Member Since: August 3, 2008 Posts: 16 Comments: 5891
or Haiti
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Interesting wave nearing 30W

Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
that is what I was getting at
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting wunderkidcayman:
low is weakening or is going to die

low get's better and not going to die

AWESOME GRAPHICS!!!

Can I have the link please?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
I got a million of 'em.



Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting SavannahStorm:


Surf's Up!


Member Since: March 19, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 1421
I think there should be a white circle around the entire basin, saying Nothing! will form, 100 percent chance!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
There once was a season so slow,,
That we couldn't get the wind to blow..
It made some people sad
that the weather wasn't bad
So to Hades all of them can go.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1454. Patrap
That would be the Sun..?

LOL..
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
I expect a yellow circle this weekend
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting cyclonekid:

Wouldn't that be the record lowest activity tieing the year of Hurricane Alicia?



1914 only had 1 recorded storm.

Member Since: March 19, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 1421


Surf's Up!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting sebastianflorida:
The Florida Turnpike, lol


LOL...the turnpike doesn't go that far west.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting BenBIogger:
My predictions are still going strong!

4 Named Storms
1 Hurricane
0 Major Hurricane


Wouldn't that be the record lowest activity tieing the year of Hurricane Alicia?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting futuremet:


It is sub-squall line caused by the strong downdrafts of the thunderstorms to the south. The cold downdrafting air acts as a mesoscale cold front, forcing the ambient less dense air upwards. Now, the downdrafting air warms rapidly as it proliferates at the surface, because of the warm temperatures. Thus, the temperature gradient is not that substantial, causing merely the development of low level clouds.


Thank you - I appreciate your answer.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1446. IKE
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting RMM34667:


YEAH.. got the image. Now.. Can someone tell me about the green line.. Seabreeze? and Do you think it will produce thunderstorms?


It is sub-squall line caused by the strong downdrafts of the thunderstorms to the south. The cold downdrafting air acts as a mesoscale cold front, forcing the ambient less dense air upwards. Now, the downdrafting air warms rapidly as it proliferates at the surface, because of the warm temperatures. Thus, the temperature gradient is not that substantial, causing merely the development of low level clouds.
Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051
1444. NRAamy
how about some three card Monty?
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 317 Comments: 31946
Just because we have never had a season of only 4 named storms does not mean it wont happen

1972 and 1983 only had 4 named storms...
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
low is weakening or is going to die

low get's better and not going to die
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1441. IKE
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
we are averaging 46 posts an hr on nothing


And apparently will continue to talk about nothing....read this afternoon discussion from San Juan,PR....

"DISCUSSION...REALLY NOT MUCH TO TALK ABT IN THE TROPICS. SAHARAN
AIR LAYER CONTINUES TO AFFECT MUCH OF THE TROPICAL ATLC WITH ONE
CONCENTRATED AREA OF DUST/HAZE OVR THE NRN LEEWARD ISLES AND ANOTHER
ONE BETWEEN 25W AND 40W LONGITUDE BASED ON SAL ANALYSIS FROM CIMSS.
MODELS CONTINUE TO INDICATE A VERY DRY ATMS WITH A STRONG CAP IN
PLACE FOR TOMORROW SO AM ANTICIPATING PRETTY MUCH NOTHING JUST HAZE
AND WINDY CONDITIONS.

A TROPICAL WAVE ALONG 50W THIS AFTERNOON IS PROGGED TO PASS
MAINLY S OF THE AREA ON THU WITH SCT SHRA/TSRA EXPECTED BUT NOTHING
SIGNIFICANT. SEASONABLE WX FOR THE WEEKEND WITH ISOLD/SCT DIURNALLY
DRIVEN CONVECTION ACROSS THE WEST IN THE AFTERNOON AND ISOLD MORNING
SHRAS IN THE EAST BUT WITH A NOTICEABLE DROP IN WINDS.

LATEST MJO PROGNOSIS FROM THE CPC WEB SITE CONTINUES TO INDICATE
STRONG DOWNWARD MOTION ACROSS THE ENTIRE ATLC BASIN THROUGH THE
MIDDLE OF AUGUST. SO IT APPEARS THE HURRICANE SEASON WILL CONTINUE
TO BE PUT ON HOLD."

Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting sebastianflorida:
The Florida Turnpike, lol


WOW thanks.. that was helpful.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
@1436 typically, a line like this on radar is the outflow boundary from nearby thunderstorms...do the sea breeze fronts even show up on radar?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting RMM34667:


YEAH.. got the image. Now.. Can someone tell me about the green line.. Seabreeze? and Do you think it will produce thunderstorms?
The Florida Turnpike, lol
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1437. Drakoen
Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
Great now we will get 200 posts breaking down what the previous 200 posts were about LOL



How insightful of you
Member Since: Posts: Comments:


YEAH.. got the image. Now.. Can someone tell me about the green line.. Seabreeze? and Do you think it will produce thunderstorms?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Great now we will get 200 posts breaking down what the previous 200 posts were about LOL

since June 1 2009 there have been 85,000 posts about, you guessed, NOTHING!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1433. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
we are averaging 46 posts an hr on nothing
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Like I said, we are all on topic, the topic of Nothing!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
I am sure I will be poofed by the wishcasters for telling them, NOTHING IS HAPPENING.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
hey guys what new how is our CV low any new TW that look more well (eye catching)
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1429. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting sebastianflorida:
1450 posts about Nothing Happening! WOW!
its called tropical withdrawals wait till the gibberish and commitals start
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1428. IKE
Quoting sebastianflorida:
1450 posts about Nothing Happening! WOW!


At least it's "on-topic"

There's that wave at 50W.....

Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting Drakoen:


LOL?



Do you have a water vapor image of when Pre-Felix in 2007 was in that same area with all the dry air? Just wondering..
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting sebastianflorida:
1450 posts about Nothing Happening! WOW!


Exactly...lol
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
Quoting Drakoen:


LOL?



I think it is the wave behind it. If it is the leading wave the NAM is developing, then tropical cyclone formation will probably not occur. There is too much dry air ahead, which is why I have been postponing Ana's birth in approximately 13 days.
Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051
1424. WxLogic
Quoting Drakoen:


LOL?



Hehe... that's the poor anorexic TW I believe the NAM is hinting at.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Even Dr. Masters did not post---Nothing worth discussing in the trop atl!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


let them have their day 456, it will pick up soon enough and the tone will change
1450 posts about Nothing Happening! WOW!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1421. NRAamy
Yes, NAMMY seems to be cyclogenically biased.

that's NRAamy....Ms. NRAamy to you...

;)
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 317 Comments: 31946
Nams on crack :P
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
HaboobsRsweet,


yea, got your point.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
Quoting Drakoen:
Interesting NAM 18z, though we always have to keep in mind it is the NAM


Yes, NAMMY seems to be cyclogenically biased. This should be monitored if other models show a similar result.
Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051
I also believe that if the A storm is not at least a cat 3, the B storm will be a beast. There is too much stored energy and warm water waiting around for something to take advantage of it.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1416. Drakoen
Quoting WxLogic:


I've been noticing that during the last couple runs. NAM has been hinting towards a more organized area of disturb WX which correlates to the TW @ 50W. Will be interesting to see how that wave will evolve or decay once it enters the Carib.


LOL?

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Oh I know things will change, it has just been nice having the quiet time. Nice not to worry every few weeks if something is coming our way. But yes, we do have a few long months left.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Weather456:
HaboobsRsweet,

I don't believe the season will be as active as previous years but at the same time, I don't believe some of these forecast being presented here. Things like 000 or 4 and such. To put into perpestive, 1977 has the same ACE as 2009 and yet it squeezed out 6, 5 of which were hurricanes including Anita. You mean to tell me that 1977 laid in an inactive period and 2009, which lays in active period is going to have less than 1977?

You are right...some of the forecasts are extreme but remember a lot of cities hit record highs that were never seen before this year as well. At the begining of the summer would you have said it has never hit 103 in June so there is no way it is going to happen? Same can be said for this hurricane season. Just because we have never had a season of only 4 named storms does not mean it wont happen.

I totally agree with you it is too early to get that crazy but I do not think it is unrealistic to forecast at least 2 weeks out even going into 3 weeks. I have no idea what will happen in Sept but I do not see more than 2 storms for August at this moment, mainly because I see zero storms in the next 2 weeks.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Sigh...

Ironically the same people who are downcasting this, are the same ones that will overcast it. It is the same every year--how tedious!
Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051

Viewing: 1463 - 1413

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39Blog Index

Top of Page

About

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

JeffMasters's Recent Photos

Lake Effort Snow Shower Over Windsor, Ontario
Sunset on Dunham Lake
Pictured Rocks Sunset
Sunset on Lake Huron