Bill Gates takes on hurricanes

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

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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

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kmanislander, any truth to Hyperion's claim that your company's in negotiations to purchase nuclear power-generating sheds?
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1362. IKE
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
there appears to have been some type tech error with wunderground


There's 2 other websites I go on that are/were down too.
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1361. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
there appears to have been some type tech error with wunderground
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1360. IKE
BLOGS BACK!

WOOHOO!!!!!!!!!!


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1359. Drakoen
It's Anaster
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Anyone else been having trouble connecting to WU?

Gulf's 'dead zone' much smaller than predicted

http://www.gulfhypoxia.net/Research/Shelfwide%20Cruises/2009/
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1349. conchygirl 7:04 PM GMT on July 28, 2009

Always glad to miss the squabbling !
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Quoting weathermanwannabe:
1338. kmanislander 2:49 PM EDT on July 28, 2009

Welcome back and I'm afraid to ask (lol)..Any sign of Glaciers retreating that your family saw or mentioned by the guides, etc, due to potential GW issues?


I was afraid someone would ask and yes, Mendenhall is retreating at an accelerating pace. The average rate of retreat for many years was 50 or 60 feet a year but in the last few few years that has changed. Two years ago the rate was 450 ft for the year and last year was approx. 260

Sawyer is at a dead end in the Tracy Arm Fjord and we could see small icebergs falling off every few minutes. With air temps in the 50's and water temps of 5 celsius melting is a certainty.
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Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
glad ya had a good trip i saw on our local news the other night how one of the cruse ships snag a whale on its bow that was'nt you was it


Thankfully no. We were on the Serenade of the Seas.

I did hear that a whle watching boat in Juneau with passengers from a different ship went down in 15 minutes after striking a rock at low tide but everyone got off safely.

We took the whale watching trip and that was something else. Seeing a 45 ton whale come up 100 feet from your boat will get the adrenaline going !.
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1351. IKE
Quoting kmanislander:


Cool !. Mid 50's every day except near the glaciers. Very refreshing. Also took a ride in a 50 year old float plane around Vancouver harbour and over the city at 1600 feet. The radial engine reminded me of the old WW2 movies. Quite a thrill.

Sat beside the pilot but no controls on my side of the plane LOL


Mid 50's sounds nice. Glad everything went well.
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Quoting WeatherStudent:


Cool !. Mid 50's every day except near the glaciers. Very refreshing. Also took a ride in a 50 year old float plane around Vancouver harbour and over the city at 1600 feet. The radial engine reminded me of the old WW2 movies. Quite a thrill.

Sat beside the pilot but no controls on my side of the plane LOL
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1338. kmanislander
Welcome back Kman....the only thing you missed is the normal squabbling that goes on here....looking forward to seeing your pictures. Sounds like it was a great trip!
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1338. kmanislander 2:49 PM EDT on July 28, 2009

Welcome back and I'm afraid to ask (lol)..Any sign of Glaciers retreating that your family saw or mentioned by the guides, etc, due to potential GW issues?
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1347. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting kmanislander:
Good afternoon all

Well, I am back from my Alaska cruise and very happy to see that there were no threats while I was away. It would appear that July will close without a tropical cyclone but that is not necessarily a good sign.

Some of the worst years on record had seasons that did not begin until August.

The heat in the Caymans is unbearable and we have had only had 2.5 inches of rain for the entire month. When you step outside it is like a blast furnace and even the breeze is like opening an oven. I can't imagine what the water temps will be in another 4 weeks.

We took some great shots of Alaska that I will upload soon including the Sawyer and Mendenhall glaciers that we saw close up. One of my sons took a helicopter ride onto Mendenhall glacier and went hiking across the ice with full gear and a guide. What a different world it is up there !.
glad ya had a good trip i saw on our local news the other night how one of the cruse ships snag a whale on its bow that was'nt you was it
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1346. IKE
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Quoting Weather456:
Also, I'm letting the downcasters have their moment now. Should get atleast 7 storms to keep them abay.


My own view is that the activity this season will occur between August and September with the season shutting down early due to high shear in the late months matching high shear in June and most of July. This would be a typical pattern for an El Nino year.

October may see one or two systems in the " secondary peak " of the season with nothing in November.

I also believe that while the overall numbers will likely be down to about 9 we may well see 4 majors due to high TCHP from a late starting season. Certainly, anything entering the Caribbean has a good chance of becoming a major barring significant adverse upper air dynamics and the same will probably be true for the GOM as both areas should exhibit very high water temps by late August.

Just my opinion for what it's worth.
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Quoting Funkadelic:
I should paint "where are you Anna" on my car window lol


It's Ana not Anna lol

but that would be funny
Well all the comments are so funny considering that we still have 85% of all tropcial activity occuring after this date

Yea we are 31% of the way through the hurricane season, but we all know that graph for development aint flat.

We are only 15% of the way through the season and really for an average year we are only 1 storm behind right now.
AMAZING VIEWS coming from Space! Endeavour flew over America, directly over Texas andyou could see the GOMEX, I wanted to wave Pat and Ike hello!
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Good afternoon all

Well, I am back from my Alaska cruise and very happy to see that there were no threats while I was away. It would appear that July will close without a tropical cyclone but that is not necessarily a good sign.

Some of the worst years on record had seasons that did not begin until August.

The heat in the Caymans is unbearable and we have had only had 2.5 inches of rain for the entire month. When you step outside it is like a blast furnace and even the breeze is like opening an oven. I can't imagine what the water temps will be in another 4 weeks.

We took some great shots of Alaska that I will upload soon including the Sawyer and Mendenhall glaciers that we saw close up. One of my sons took a helicopter ride onto Mendenhall glacier and went hiking across the ice with full gear and a guide. What a different world it is up there !.
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Also, I'm letting the downcasters have their moment now. Should get atleast 7 storms to keep them abay.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
I am still keeping mines at 12 named storms.
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Dang thats a fired up 456.
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1333. hahaguy
Quoting Weather456:
WS, I'm not lower my numbers until I see what happens for the 1st 2 weeks of august. Sticking with my forecast since May 16 and not moved by the inactivity of July and June becuz I know better, I'm a forecaster not a see-saw. lol :)


I've kept mine at 13 storms since may also. I figure I will go down with the ship lol.
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Quoting Weather456:
WS, I'm not lower my numbers until I see what happens for the 1st 2 weeks of august. Sticking with my forecast since May 16 and not moved by the inactivity of July and June becuz I know better, I'm a forecaster not a see-saw. lol :)


Right on the money
Oz you are right no one thinks there will be zero hurricanes sometimes we can make a statement just for general conversation. Look forward to your enhanced productions.
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WS, I'm not lower my numbers until I see what happens for the 1st 2 weeks of august. Sticking with my forecast since May 16 and not moved by the inactivity of July and June becuz I know better, I'm a forecaster not a see-saw. lol :)
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
I will say this about the possibility of a 0,0,0 hurricane season:

61 days has August and September. It's almost impossible for that amount of time to pass in those months without a named storm.

Odds do not favor 0,0,0 and are heavily tilted in favor of named storm formation. As 456 has said, that's "reality."
Member Since: August 26, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 3892
Looks to be 2 areas in the pacific they are watching.....

Link
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3 Aug, 4 Sep, 2 Oct, 1 Nov
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Quoting gordydunnot:
Also Oz maybe right, all the time he has spent upgrading may go fore not. That would be nice.


Absolutely correct.

Although alot of time and money went into our upgrades in order to document landfalling hurricanes, a 0,0,0 year trumps all that and how freakin' interesting would that be? A season wide setup like that producing a 0,0,0 year would be analyzed, scrutinized and argued about all off-season.

Who cares about what my team is ready and capable of doing? That matters as much as predictions do.

Should a 0,0,0 year occur, well that's a once in a lifetime thing and we should all find some measure of appreciation in it if it does pan out that way.

Our team will still be ready for each successive season to document landfalling hurricanes. We can wait.
Member Since: August 26, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 3892
August 15 is the best time to update numbers still 12/7 for 2009 hurricane season.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1322. Drakoen
When is Anaster gonna form guys?!?!?!
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I think surreal is when you have season like 2005.
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Its all about connections. Just curious did you loan him any money. Also Oz maybe right, all the time he has spent upgrading may go fore not. That would be nice. I am sure even Oz would agree.And Pat while I am at it was that Wilma Flintstone after she divorced Fred.
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1318. Patrap
Quoting gordydunnot:
looking at past post Patrap how did you get Larry King to come on the Weather Underground. Winning hand could be 3 deuces. 2 2 2=6, spoiler would be a 3 in Sept.


Larry and I go way back,to the 70's..I introduced him to his first wife.

p.s.,Larry's a Big time Main Blog Lurker too.
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looking at past post Patrap how did you get Larry King to come on the Weather Underground. Winning hand could be 3 deuces. 2+2+2=6, spoiler would be a 3 in Sept.
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So the current high setup is bad for the united states especially Florida. Am i correct? And does anyone have the graph of where the high was positioned in 2004. Thanks
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1315. NRAamy
List the current negative influences to TC development and when those conditions are favorable for change.

negative influences: when "ikster" is added onto a name...

when conditions are favorable to change: when school starts back up again
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 317 Comments: 31946
As far as predictions go, everyone of course is correct in saying that in the end, they're meaningless.

That is, everyone's predictions but my own!

0,0,0 is exactly where we stand today on July 28, 2009 and of even more importance, nothing is out there changing in order for TCs to form.

I've got this big giant crow bird just waiting to be basted and served up on this, but honestly...there are so many negatives to TC formation right now..."globally!" that in order for something to bakup up out there somewhere, very interesting and powerful systems have to change.

So here's a new poll...and this one actually will make sense to those of you who like to forecast:

List the current negative influences to TC development and when those conditions are favorable for change.

Don't just onesy and twosy it...make a complete list with forecast change dates if you can.

Thanks! That will be an interesting read!
Member Since: August 26, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 3892

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

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