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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Quoting stormsurge39:
Does anybody think the new wave coming off africa looks better than the last few? Do you think it will develope or meet the same fate as all the other ones?

There is too much dry air imo.
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JupiterFL

long time no see

Is that your first time posting since last year?
Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051
Quoting hahaguy:


My bad futuremet I'm not good at math lol.


lol, it's okay, I am very good at math either.
Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051
Perhaps your screen name should be magicbrownie?


Quoting Magicchaos:
Here is my 2PM tropical analysis.



Right-click the image, click "View Image" to see the text clearer.

Let me know if I might have done something wrong with it.

EDIT: I forgot to mention that I moved my chances from 24 to 72 hours because I think my formula might be for a longer forecast length than 24 and 48 hours.
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Does anybody think the new wave coming off africa looks better than the last few? Do you think it will develope or meet the same fate as all the other ones?
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Quoting futuremet:


Dean was about 2 years ago.


My bad futuremet I'm not good at math lol.
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Quoting hahaguy:


You're off by a year.


Dean was about 2 years ago.
Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051
Quoting futuremet:
23 months ago



You're off by a year.
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That might be an all too familiar sight come september.
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oh ok, I was gonna say...I hadn't been gone that long.
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23 months ago

Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051
496. mobilegirl81 2:21 PM PDT on July 27, 2009
Just like someone with billions of dollars to go off and do something stupid.



yeah...I thought us poor people had the market on that....
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 317 Comments: 31946
No, just some sqully weather probably, but like I mentioned, ITS IN THE GULF...
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498. IKE
Quoting TexasHurricane:


HUH? Did I miss something....? They think something may decvelop in the Gulf and come here?


No...

AREA FORECAST DISCUSSION
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE CORPUS CHRISTI TX
314 PM CDT MON JUL 27 2009

.SHORT TERM (TONIGHT THROUGH TUESDAY NIGHT)...HOT AND HUMID
WEATHER WILL CONTINUE ACROSS SOUTH TEXAS THROUGH THE SHORT TERM.
MODELS CONTINUE TO SHOW AN UPPER DISTURBANCE MOVING ACROSS
NORTHEAST AND EAST CENTRAL TEXAS...WITH LIMITED CHANCE FOR ANY
ACTIVITY ACROSS THE VICTORIA CROSSROADS...AND EVEN LESS ACROSS THE
COASTAL BEND AND POINTS WEST.

OTHERWISE...OVERALL AIRMASS REMAINS THE SAME WITH SLIGHT RIDGING
ALOFT AND A SURFACE PRESSURE GRADIENT INCREASING BETWEEN LOW
PRESSURE OVER THE SOUTHERN HIGH PLAINS AND ENTRENCHED HIGH
PRESSURE OVER THE WESTERN GULF OF MEXICO. THIS GRADIENT WILL KEEP
WINDS UP ACROSS SOUTH TEXAS...LEADING TO MARINE ADVISORIES AND
GUSTY AFTERNOON WINDS OVER LAND. HEAT INDEX VALUES WILL REMAIN
ELEVATED...BUT REMAIN BELOW HEADLINE CRITERIA.
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Just like someone with billions of dollars to go off and do something stupid.
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Quoting mobilegirl81:
Steve Lyons just did the tropical update. Very conservative guy, which is being professional and playing it smart. He said the covection in the southwest is associated with an upper level low which is true, but anybody on the gulf coast knows as well as I do that you can just about throw an orange seed out there and something will grow and develop! Look out Texas.


HUH? Did I miss something....? They think something may decvelop in the Gulf and come here?
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If Gates thinks he can pull that off, he is having a pipe dream.
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Has anyone run some numbers as to how many Trillions of gallons of water would have to be moved at depth, in a short period of time, over hundreds of square miles to even think this Gates thing could work? I know some of you are good crunchers of numbers. Lets just say we need to invert a 50 mile x 50 mile area to a depth of 250' and have 24hrs to do so as an example. Consider a 50% reheat rate at 12 hr. intervals just for fun. Any takers ?
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


It can also kill countless numbers of marine life if not done properly, for a generation that is already being accused of altering the environment, this would be a horrible idea.

Not to mention the function of a TC. What if we did weaken the majors to a cat 2? Would everyone on the coast be OK with twice the average number of hurricanes if they were all cat 2? I don't think the average person living on the coast would agree.
Mother nature would find a way to correct the imbalance of heat distribution to her liking.
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Steve Lyons just did the tropical update. Very conservative guy, which is being professional and playing it smart. He said the covection in the southwest is associated with an upper level low which is true, but anybody on the gulf coast knows as well as I do that you can just about throw an orange seed out there and something will grow and develop! Look out Texas.
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AOI

AOI
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Quoting HurricaneSwirl:


i actually like his analysises

its a easier to understand than the expert's (although i do understand and like theirs as well), has a color coded scale of 5 groups of likeliness of dev, and is explained well.

you should post the analysis stuff that you do in your blog though, magicchaos, for easier finding, because i like to read them :)


Is it ok that I only have the images because I don't know that much about tropical formation to have an entire blog about it.

I'll leave the explanations to the experts.
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Quoting IKE:
Seabreeze front moved through here and scattered thundershowers are popping up....



Been raining and thundering here in Crawfordville (25 miles south of Tallahassee) for the last several hours and looks like more rain for the Panhandle/Big Bend on the way between today and tommorow.....
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Quoting CycloneOz:


...and we'd be more than interested to see it if someone taped it and put it on YouTube for us...but 20 minutes is too soon for the uploader to process it yet.

What area are you at? Will help with a YouTube search.

If someone finds a link to this storm posted to YouTube later on, let us know, okay?


I am in Chickasaw, Alabama at our boat repair shop.
I promise in this little town it wouldn't be nothing on youtube.

Sheri
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Quoting Brillig:


Hey, I never said it was OK. Pouring oil on the sea to calm it is not a new idea, by the way. And it's been found to work. Google it, you'll find lots of info. But could it calm a hurricane? I don't know. It seems just as likely to me as those other ideas. But that's not saying much. Anyway, this was meant to just be a thought experiment. I don't suggest it actually be tried out.


It can also kill countless numbers of marine life if not done properly, for a generation that is already being accused of altering the environment, this would be a horrible idea.
Quoting Weather456:
We'll see how that waves goes. It should of been choked by now. But we see storms can develop and maintain for sometime while surrounded by dust, example Erin (forgot the year).


2001
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omg...it's looney tunes, folks! :(

actually, it appears to be Family Guy...
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 317 Comments: 31946
Quoting NRAamy:
458. Magicchaos 1:38 PM PDT on July 27, 2009
Here is my 2PM tropical analysis.


Doc made you the afternoon moderator?


i actually like his analysises

its a easier to understand than the expert's (although i do understand and like theirs as well), has a color coded scale of 5 groups of likeliness of dev, and is explained well.

you should post the analysis stuff that you do in your blog as well though, magicchaos, for easier finding, because i like to read them :)
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


So then its ok to create an oil slick that will possibly destory many of the fish and other marine life that live in that area just to destroy a hurricane?

Sorry that doesnt work either.


Hey, I never said it was OK. Pouring oil on the sea to calm it is not a new idea, by the way. And it's been found to work. Google it, you'll find lots of info. But could it calm a hurricane? I don't know. It seems just as likely to me as those other ideas. But that's not saying much. Anyway, this was meant to just be a thought experiment. I don't suggest it actually be tried out.
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We'll see how that waves goes. It should of been choked by now. But we see storms can develop and maintain for sometime while surrounded by dust, example Erin (forgot the year).
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
476. IKE
Seabreeze front moved through here and scattered thundershowers are popping up....

Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting leftovers:
appreciate everyones opinion. our govt cant afford to pay the money especially nowadays to do suck a thing anyways.

Hmmm, apropos on the typo?

Looks like the MJO got stuck
Last 40 days:


And anyone saying they have it nailed beyond a week out needs to apply for a job at the NCDC or CDC (Not disease, but climate diagnostics center) or the CPC. The correlation of forecast and obs dips below 0.5 in the best case about 8 days out...as no better than statistical accident, worse actually.


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Hey all you should have seen the weather we just went thru about 20 minutes ago. Man it ripped the tin off of the boat stalls and it was black as a ace of spades. the wind blowing really hard and the rain was really bad to. Power went off and came back on. Hubby said it looked like tornado weather. The doors on the shop where like being sucked in and out it was weird. Know it's just raining like cats and dogs.

Sheri
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Quoting hurricane23:
The eastern atlantic is plagued with sal which will hamper any chances to those cape-verde waves.

Hopefully we'll get a break around peak.


Seems like we might see the +NAO by mid August.
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472. IKE
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting Brillig:


Funny that you would refer to "the east" and then illustrate with a polar view. Which side is east?


I meant the east coast U.S. bud
Member Since: July 19, 2008 Posts: 43 Comments: 4051
Quoting Brillig:
I've had the idea that to control a hurricane, all that needs to be done is to take a large oil tanker and move it to the eye. Then detonate the oil tanker, creating a massive oil slick. The oil slick prevents the transport of water from the sea to the atmosphere, thus stopping the hurricane.

There are obvious problems with such a scheme, but do you think it would work?

You mean aside from the massive ecological disaster, extreme cost, and the fact that the *average* hurricane eye is 20 miles in diameter (~300 square miles), and a "typical" hurricane pulls water from an area that is 250 miles in diameter (roughly 200,000 square miles). Also, keep in mind that wave action helps break down oil when in water (it mixes the oil and water), and the hurricane will be moving.

With all that info, it would definitely require several dozen tankers, and would also not work. The power and area involved is just far too large.
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Quoting Brillig:
I've had the idea that to control a hurricane, all that needs to be done is to take a large oil tanker and move it to the eye. Then detonate the oil tanker, creating a massive oil slick. The oil slick prevents the transport of water from the sea to the atmosphere, thus stopping the hurricane.

There are obvious problems with such a scheme, but do you think it would work?


So then its ok to create an oil slick that will possibly destory many of the fish and other marine life that live in that area just to destroy a hurricane?

Sorry that doesnt work either.
Quoting NRAamy:
458. Magicchaos 1:38 PM PDT on July 27, 2009
Here is my 2PM tropical analysis.


Doc made you the afternoon moderator?


No, I just do these for something to do and for tracking possible disturbances. I have a big interest in tropical meteorology. I'm relatively new to make these analyzes though.
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Quoting Brillig:
<

There are obvious problems with such a scheme, but do you think it would work?


That would be a disaster in itself, not to mention probably not do anything to the storm.
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The eastern atlantic is plagued with sal which will hamper any chances to those cape-verde waves.

Hopefully we'll get a break around peak.
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Quoting Weather456:


I love that show...lol


Me to lol.
Amy it's way better.
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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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