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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Ive always heard when a hurricane upwells water, that it slows developement for another. Is this true or not?
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Quoting stormsurge39:
Does anybody know the last year when a hurricane was not in the gulf?


2006.
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Actually it develops the wave that is south of the CV Ialands now, holds on to it for a few days and then drops it lol

but this is the 2nd straight run now that the GFS has held onto the system for a decent period of time

The run is through 288 hours (August 10th) and has a huge wave coming off at that time
Thanks burned
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0Z GFS develops the wave coming off Africa it appears and then at 288 hours it has a very strong wave coming off Africa


To answer your question surge, 2006 didnt have a Hurricane in the Gulf
2009....so far...



Just kidding...
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Does anybody know the last year when a hurricane was not in the gulf?
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About 10 knots of shear in the Gulf.
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yeah GPTGUY, that is often the way to get deeper pools of warm water(apart from loop currents, eddies, etc)....But again, it has its pitfalls as well...Its all timing....Since the upwelling happened near the beginning of the season(in 05), the ocean was able to recover more quickly, but to a deeper depth...If it happened near the end of the season, the energy would have not been utilized very efficiently since cold air masses start working their way to the oceans near that time frame, dispersing the heat...
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All quiet on the eastern front....one more from me then g'nite.


The way to make some people glad
is to have a storm that is bad
they think its waycool
but they're actin the fool
cause it makes a bunch of us sad
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Westerly wind shear is starting to move north.
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1802. GPTGUY
Quoting quasigeostropic:


Hey GPTGUY, yeah that was amazing. The principle cause for that was the very warm loop current and warm pools of eddies breaking off(which happened to be in the direct path of such cat 5 storms)...

Early storms also helped mix the ocean, allowing for greater depths of warming over several months...

It is the atmospheric setup which is ultimately the most important criteria to hurricane formation though.


Oh so you're saying that the prior storms mixed the warmer surface water deeper making the TCHP higher?
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Quoting ajcamsmom2:
TampaSpin, I agree, a few days of bright sunshine and my favorite buoy will be right back registering temps around 90 degrees or so...


Just to tell you all what happens. When i was in the GOM last week in the early mornings the surface temp in the exact same area from 7am vs 3pm could raise as much as almost 2deg going up and down.....from day to nite..Keep in mind that those temps are the surface temps on the very top....
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good nite.
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This map shows some AOI's


and this one
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Quoting Stormchaser2007:
Its actually rather alarming to see how much warmer the gulf is than previous active years.If a hurricane can get into the Gulf with the right conditions this year we could be looking at trouble.

2009:



This is pretty scary...
2005:


Even if its a slow season, a Category 5 in the gulf would be a season maker.
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Quoting GPTGUY:
It still is amazing that the Gulf sustained 2 cat 5's in 2005 with all the tropical activity in June and July that preceeded Katrina and Rita.


Hey GPTGUY, yeah that was amazing. The principle cause for that was the very warm loop current and warm pools of eddies breaking off(which happened to be in the direct path of such cat 5 storms)...

Early storms also helped mix the ocean, allowing for greater depths of warming over several months...

It is the atmospheric setup which is ultimately the most important criteria to hurricane formation though.
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ThunderPR are we the only two smart people on here? I don't think so. We'll be like a pinball game on rocket fuel. Anyway, goodnight again. Sweet dreams of nice places.
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A wave is more likely increase with low SAL, not diminish, hunkerdown.
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TampaSpin, I agree, a few days of bright sunshine and my favorite buoy will be right back registering temps around 90 degrees or so...
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yes chicklit very soon
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The heat energy in the GOM is called potential energy. It takes a disturbance to release it quickly.....Often times though, the full available potential energy is not used up by a hurricane, but is dispersed in the ocean and atmosphere as winter comes again over a longer period of time....
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Quoting Chicklit:
Hunkerdown, what's the centrigrade number of the SSTs at Cape Verde, please.


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1790. GPTGUY
It still is amazing that the Gulf sustained 2 cat 5's in 2005 with all the tropical activity in June and July that preceeded Katrina and Rita.
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The GOM has cooled down a bit, this buoy was registering temps around 90 degrees a couple of weeks ago, but, we've had a good bit of rain lately...

Conditions at 42001 as of
(10:50 pm CDT on 07/28/2009)
0350 GMT on 07/29/2009:
Unit of Measure: Time Zone:
Click on the graph icon in the table below to see a time series plot of the last five days of that observation.

Wind Direction (WDIR): SSE ( 150 deg true )
Wind Speed (WSPD): 9.7 kts
Wind Gust (GST): 11.7 kts
Wave Height (WVHT): 1.6 ft
Dominant Wave Period (DPD): 5 sec
Average Period (APD): 4.0 sec
Atmospheric Pressure (PRES): 29.97 in
Pressure Tendency (PTDY): +0.02 in ( Rising )
Air Temperature (ATMP): 85.6 °F
Water Temperature (WTMP): 87.3 °F
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Link

see the map here.
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Quoting THUNDERPR:
Hi guys the current sst near the cape verde islands is 27c

Soon to become 28c
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Mixing water in the ocean helps to create a more uniform temp profile with depth...Just like air in the lower atmosphere mixing, it averages out temperature...The only difference is that temp changes in the ocean are over a longer time interval than in the atmosphere...
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Quoting Vortex95:
Drak wouldn't upwelling happen in the gom? That energy isn't going to wait forever.


Heat raises.....colder water sink....SST's recover very fast now....but a disturbance would help some....
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Hi guys the current sst near the cape verde islands is 27c
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The waves coming off of Africa are entering receptive conditions.
Goodnight.
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Quoting Vortex95:
Drak wouldn't upwelling happen in the gom? That energy isn't going to wait forever.
I believe something would have to cause it.
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Small disturbances in the ocean can actually, over time help TCHP(tropical cyclone heat potential) by mixing the water at deeper depths with the ocean swells. Dont focus too much on SSTs, because they do not cause hurricane formation, but provide the fuel to sustain them as they exist...The REAL mechanism that gets hurricanes going is coriolis helped by vorticity(spin).
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Quoting Stormchaser2007:


I dont know if you have me on ignore or not, but here you go.

and look at that pocket of cooler temps...
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Not your best Doug...did you just get back from your watering hole?
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Quoting Chicklit:
Hunkerdown, what's the centrigrade number of the SSTs at Cape Verde, please.


I dont know if you have me on ignore or not, but here you go.

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Nothing in the gulf anytime soon.
Its as barren as the moon,
When we get back to the norm
and get a big storm
all the hurricane weenies will swoon.
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Quoting Chicklit:
Hunkerdown, what's the centrigrade number of the SSTs at Cape Verde, please.
Best estimate from the map around 26.
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Looks like 28 degrees Centrigrade.


SSTs
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PennState
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Quoting GeoffreyWPB:
It's not even even the Cape Verde season and that is what we are hitching our wagons to? Give the season time people.


No ones saying it'll definitively develop. Its just something to watch. In fact, the only thing.
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Quoting GPTGUY:


I suspect the big difference in sst in the Western Gulf from 2005 to 2009 is because Hurricane Emily had just passed through that portion of the Western Gulf about a week ago back in '05 and upwelled cooler waters.


Thats an interesting point. Lets see how the season progresses. It'll be interesting to see if the SST's can continue to rise.
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Quoting Stormchaser2007:


What? Its the one about to exit the coast...check the coordinates and use it to find the SST on the other map.


And I am seeing temps below or at very best, near 80...nowhere near the mid 80s you are proclaiming. Lets just sit, watch, and wait. As I said in post 1762...
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I'm really nervous about the next couple of weeks, quite frankly.
I think Hurricane Central is in Alert Mode.
SSTs are enough for fueling a low.
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It's not even even the Cape Verde season and that is what we are hitching our wagons to? Give the season time people.
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Quoting hunkerdown:
sorry, the wave is not at 0 degrees


What? Its the one about to exit the coast...check the coordinates and use it to find the SST on the other map.


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1763. GPTGUY
Quoting Stormchaser2007:
TCHP in the Gulf must be pretty high. Nothing has formed in the Gulf and its been exposed to full sun for quite a few months now. Lets hope the Atlantic stays quiet otherwise we may see some trouble later on. All we need is a favorable environment...

This is how much warmer the Gulf is when compared to 2005. Remember the Gulf produced two Category 5 hurricanes that year. Katrina and Rita.





I suspect the big difference in sst in the Western Gulf from 2005 to 2009 is because Hurricane Emily had just passed through that portion of the Western Gulf about a week ago back in '05 and upwelled cooler waters.
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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.