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 IKE:


Most of the time I am. Then again, I talk to myself a lot....


Which is fine, your problem starts when you start answering yourself
Quoting DestinJeff:
show of hands ... how many people are actually laughing out loud when they type "lol"? just wondering. could you imagine all of us in a room together? the laughing out loud would be endless!


are you the lol police? Never thought we would have something like that.

If you are, are they hiring? lol (yes I actually did laugh out loud)

Do you give tickets for people who say lol but dont actually laugh?

Quoting TampaSpin:
Nice Midlevel spin in the BOC......something to watch


I agree. Should something form, where would it head....back to the west?
Member Since: August 26, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 3620
210. IKE
Quoting DestinJeff:
show of hands ... how many people are actually laughing out loud when they type "lol"? just wondering. could you imagine all of us in a room together? the laughing out loud would be endless!


Most of the time I am. Then again, I talk to myself a lot....
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NexSat GOM Viz Loop
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Quoting TampaSpin:
Nice Midlevel spin in the BOC......something to watch


As I said earlier, shear is falling in the Gulf
Quoting NRAamy:
"kiddo"...I knew there was a reason I liked you, Jerry...

;)

I'm doin' good....so far no bans from the main blog....

;)


YET! If the "F" word is used it could be coming.......LOL
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
Quoting WeatherStudent:
why does the gfs have teh storm going out to sea, y'all?


200hr+, low-resolution, poleward bias
Member Since: October 28, 2006 Posts: 57 Comments: 29918
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Afternoon all.

Anything going on in the GOM? Is that just an ULL?

I dont pretend to know anything, lol. I come here to learn what I can. :)
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They should make a super GFS that runs the entire hurricane season.
6 month GFS.
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199. IKE
Quoting Weather456:
Wow as soon as we look for something to track it's another thing. Depressing isn't it? knowing that its hurricane season.

BBL


No...what's depressing is telemarketing calls and they all say no...on a Monday morning.

Now that's depressing.
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Did some analog digging last night on what this season might look as I really don't use analog years for SSTa...but more for hemispheric patterns. I really think 1951 is the BEST match atmospherically with the mean trough in the Midwest along with the robust -AO. that year really didn't get going unil late AUG.

Only 10 named, but look at all the CAT 3 +...SSTa certainly support CAT 3 in the GOM/CARIB!

Adrian
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Nice Midlevel spin in the BOC......something to watch
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
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192. IKE
Quoting Patrap:


And that chart is fixing to get tested.
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Wow as soon as we look for something to track it's another thing. Depressing isn't it? knowing that its hurricane season.

BBL
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The sun is back out. :)
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now we have Blog psycologists/mets all in one Bag.

Fascinating.
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200hr plus GFS...Blah
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The 1977 Atlantic hurricane season officially began on June 1, 1977, and lasted until November 30, 1977.

The 1977 Atlantic hurricane season was below average in activity, with 6 tropical storms forming, of which 5 became hurricanes. The only notable storm of the season was Hurricane Anita, which hit Mexico as a Category 5 hurricane, killing 10 people.


Mind you; this number of 6 storms was before the current active period in the multi-decadal
cycle but lends some support to my earlier comment about hating late season starts because of heat potential available to a "first" late August hurricane....
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Quoting hurricaneseason2006:
The second an invest forms, some of them (shall call no names) will be all over it like white on rice and yet they are pretending now like the tropics being quiet is a good thing. When you lurk alot you find out alot about bloggers.


lol, as much as you are sometimes mean, you gotta a point.
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Quoting sporteguy03:


Good point.


AMEN!
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Quoting NRAamy:
BAP...please do not use the "F" word....


Meow :P
BAP...please do not use the "F" word....
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Also the GFS has never been good at showing the actual strength of a system

Remember it showed Felix as a weak low pressure when it was a Cat 5

or was that Dean? lol
Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
I really think the GFS is having serious feedback issues right now, so as we get into August it is probably better to look at the current conditions moreso than what the long range GFS is showing lol

Gee real-time conditions over a long range forecast model; what a concept lol


Good point.
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"kiddo"...I knew there was a reason I liked you, Jerry...

;)

I'm doin' good....so far no bans from the main blog....

;)
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
I really think the GFS is having serious feedback issues right now, so as we get into August it is probably better to look at the current conditions moreso than what the long range GFS is showing lol



true, that could one reason, so we'll have to see how it runs next week.
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I really think the GFS is having serious feedback issues right now, so as we get into August it is probably better to look at the current conditions moreso than what the long range GFS is showing lol

Gee real-time conditions over a long range forecast model; what a concept lol
Quoting NRAamy:
Jerry!!!!!!

:)


Amy!!!

How you doing, kiddo?
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Quoting BobinTampa:


I'm at Westshore & Cypress. Got plenty of rain. no real close lightning strikes. Just lots of rain for about 45 minutes.


Lots of lightning strikes @ Bush and Dale Mabry....mostly gone now.
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Bill Gates watching the Main Blog today..

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167. IKE
Quoting Weather456:
The GFS developing the other strong wave over Africa on 8 August...signs of August are nearing.







And then diminishes it 2 days later...

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If the GFS is correct we may have a cape verde fish next week. WS may get his bday wish, lol. I'll have to see if other models come on board.
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Since the naming of storms began in 1953, the latest an Atlantic storm has formed was Anita on Aug. 29, 1977. On average, based on records that go back to 1851, a tropical storm forms every other June in the Atlantic basin, which also encompasses the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

We "should" get at least one storm by the end of August.... :)
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Quoting DestinJeff:
"with that new wave off Africa and shear decreasing in the gulf, I'd say maybe this season will be at or above average"

14
8
3



LOL!!! Your not serious are you?
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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.