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 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"

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LOL!!! Your not serious are you?
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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.


Most of the heavy stuff went right by us in downtown. It's raining now here but nothing extremely heavy. Nothing like last night for sure.
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The GFS developing the other strong wave over Africa on 8 August...signs of August are nearing.





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Quoting CaneWarning:


Yeah, its a strange storm to be sure. We had really violent lightning and thunder. Very little rain in downtown. The skies are much brighter now than they were a little bit ago.


I'm at Westshore & Cypress. Got plenty of rain. no real close lightning strikes. Just lots of rain for about 45 minutes.
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anyone else notice a slight turning ahead of the small burst of convection around 14N/68W
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Is the ocean Florida's untapped energy source ?
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Quoting BobinTampa:


but the storm that produced them wasn't really all that violent. really no wind and not a ton of lightning. just about over now I think.



Yeah, its a strange storm to be sure. We had really violent lightning and thunder. Very little rain in downtown. The skies are much brighter now than they were a little bit ago.
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154. IKE
Quoting DestinJeff:


sonofabitchster, you're right. mid-day mind is numb i guess


he-he...oops he-hester~.
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Quoting LPStormspotter:


Good idea.. I will go to the houston Ship channel... But i will put a bag in
Now, unless that ice was made from ocean water, keep in mind the unanticipated impact you will be making on sea level rise.
:)
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Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
Canewarning you getting any rain?


Yeah, but not too heavy. It actually looks like the majority of this storm will pass just to the south of downtown.
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Quoting DestinJeff:


"i see we have a new monster out there. what are your current thoughts as of now about its eventual future track and impending strength, sir? my gut tells me this one definitely has eyes for S FL or maybe The Big One."


The most I can truly tell you is that the GFS had the wave near the Southern Bahamas on Monday. The most recent run (12Z), the model develops the wave to a depression but struggles with it in the Central Atlantic.

Since I'm unsure of development, the mostly likely forecast is for a strong wave to travel west and reached the fringes of the Caribbean this weekend.
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Jerry!!!!!!

:)
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Yeah, I noticed on the shear forcast maps on WU that shear is supposed to diminish. SST are hot, so why do none of the models show anything developing? Seems like there's plenty of moisture around...
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Quoting CaneWarning:


Yeah, they say there have been about 5 or 6 between the beaches and the bay. Interesting weather.


but the storm that produced them wasn't really all that violent. really no wind and not a ton of lightning. just about over now I think.

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145. IKE
Quoting DestinJeff:


"i see we have a new monster out there. what are your current thoughts as of now about its eventual future track and impending strength, sir? my gut tells me this one definitely has eyes for S FL or maybe The Big One."


Only part you left out.....>>>> 456Ster.
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Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
Great waterspout pics canewarning!


Yeah, they say there have been about 5 or 6 between the beaches and the bay. Interesting weather.
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Shear is decreasing in the Gulf
Quoting NoNamePub:
Floodman....whats UP!

Agree with your point too. Hurricanes release and incredible amount of energy.....if we squash the canes - that energy has to go somewhere!!!!


I'm in and out Pub...how have you been?
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Quoting Weather456:


havent heard that word in a long time but yea ur correct.





Cape Verde storms generally track along the same sector as the slave ships from Africa carrying slaves to the Americas....
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Quoting Weather456:



1) the low to the north is what we call the secondary circulation of the Western African monsoon system. The primary circulation is the ITCZ itself.

2) Waves passing through this secondary circulation can sometimes be enhanced by the vorticity it carries. Example is Helene 2006 and Bertha 2008.

3) I'm not sure if this will combine with the wave. Never really saw it personally but heard of it. For one, it provides a region of low pressure for the wave.


Ah ok so the low only helps the wave most likely be creating lower pressures in the region
Quoting weathernutTX:
Regarding weather modification; until you can explain the incessant spraying in the skies above us and strange cloud formations, I will believe otherwise. I'd still like to know why as huge as Ike was and all the damage that was done clear into the midwest, why Ike's precip hardly showed up on radar in it's trek across the gulf.

That would be because of radars having limited range due to line-of-sight. Kinda hard to see a storm when its 300 miles out to sea.
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Hi ya'll.

Wonder why they don't just ask Chuck Norris to stop the hurricanes? Did you know his poop is used for currency in Argentina?
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Quoting weathermanwannabe:


Sheer is realtively low right now along the middle passage....


havent heard that word in a long time but yea ur correct.



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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


shhhhh dont say that lol, you might cause some panic

I agree the wave looks good, I have a question about it though. There is a surface low to the north of the convection, I am not sure it is related. The low is expected to move WSW to SW as the convection moves west.

What do you see as the possibilities of this low in relation to the convection? Are they both part of the wave? Also can they combine?



1) the low to the north is what we call the secondary circulation of the Western African monsoon system. The primary circulation is the ITCZ itself.

2) Waves passing through this secondary circulation can sometimes be enhanced by the vorticity it carries. Example is Helene 2006 and Bertha 2008.

3) I'm not sure if this will combine with the wave. Never really saw it personally but heard of it. For one, it provides a region of low pressure for the wave.
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Quoting CaneWarning:


I'm going to do my part and place an ice cube in Tampa Bay tonight when I get home.


Good idea.. I will go to the houston Ship channel... But i will put a bag in
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Quoting Patrap:
Lets get the Ships in Place and start the Upwelling,..those waves are potent.


I'm going to do my part and place an ice cube in Tampa Bay tonight when I get home.
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The thunder and lightning in Tampa right now are office. My whole office keeps rattling. I love t-storms.
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Lets get the Ships in Place and start the Upwelling,..those waves are potent.
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Quoting Weather456:
I thought this would of died by now, guess we have soemthing to watch. But the system is under a good amount easterly shear, which is much more favorable than westerly shear since the net sehar will be about 0-10 knots



Sheer is realtively low right now along the middle passage....
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Quoting Weather456:
I thought this would of died by now, guess we have soemthing to watch. But the system is under a good amount easterly shear, which is much more favorable than westerly shear since the net sehar will be about 0-10 knots



shhhhh dont say that lol, you might cause some panic

I agree the wave looks good, I have a question about it though. There is a surface low to the north of the convection, I am not sure it is related. The low is expected to move WSW to SW as the convection moves west.

What do you see as the possibilities of this low in relation to the convection? Are they both part of the wave? Also can they combine?
Quoting Ossqss:


Could promote a Butterfly Effect.


Love that commercial!
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
456, surface analysis shows low pressure on the northern side of the area that came off Africa

Do you agree that it appears the SAL isnt drying out the environment as much as past surges have?


based on TPW that is correct. Though its effects are being felt, especially with the wave at 40W.

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I still say Bill ripped off cyclonebuster...who would be on here defending himself if he wasn't banned into infinity from the main blog....

;)
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Quoting CaneWarning:


I don't see how it will alter anything. He can try it once, and see it doesn't work. No harm no foul.


Could promote a Butterfly Effect
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I thought this would of died by now, guess we have soemthing to watch. But the system is under a good amount easterly shear, which is much more favorable than westerly shear since the net sehar will be about 0-10 knots

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Quoting Patrap:
Who needs Bill Gates to modify the Weather ?,..shucks..we have blogger's doing that daily here.


lmao
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


So why did he get the patent if he wasnt going to try and do this?


Lots of people and organizations patent specific ideas just in case they become feasible in the future.

I seriously doubt Gates is foolish enough to think that there aren't potential side effects that need to be studied, or that there aren't many challenges to the feasibility of the idea.

Criticism should start when he starts building these ships w/o a scientific and public consensus that it's a good idea, not when a patent is filed.
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


One time wouldnt prove anything though, it would take altering numerous storms to affect the environment

If he finds that it works he will want to alter every storm that comes along. There is your real danger, problem is by then he will be unstoppable


I don't think it'll go anywhere personally. I think we have much larger things to worry about.
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456, surface analysis shows low pressure on the northern side of the area that came off Africa

Do you agree that it appears the SAL isnt drying out the environment as much as past surges have?

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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.