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 leftovers:
it would nice to have some control over the bad systems if we can prevent a landfalling cat 4 by downgrading it to a 2 that would help. slick it


i agree that it would be nice. but in reality even if it was successful in "weakening" the storm a catagory...which i dont think it would...you'd still have effects such as rainfall and surge which would be more characteristic of the higher catagory...just like when katrina weakened at landfall, but still brought a cat 5 surge. So in that sence it may actually be more misleading and dangerous...those are my thoughts
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he didnt mention anything but its looks to be very interesting according to the gfs
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61. JRRP
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What's your next prediction Ike? You were taking some grief for saying July would be storm-free, but you were right. When do you think we see the first storm pop up?

Member Since: August 14, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 553
Quoting IKE:
Hurricane season is so slow in the Atlantic Dr. Masters doesn't even mention anything pertaining to the next 7 days.....


LOL yea
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hey guys 2nd week of august looks to be very interesting in the tropical atlantic
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57. IKE
Hurricane season is so slow in the Atlantic Dr. Masters doesn't even mention anything pertaining to the next 7 days.....
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting SomeRandomTexan:


That is the most immature comment I have heard on this blog in a long time... Penalized for being successful.. that is insane


Actually, and like Bill Gates, there are built in provisions in the US Tax code wherein the very wealthy do in fact (and most of the super rich like athletes and business magnates) get tax breaks, against their astronomical incomes, for charitable contributions and setting up of foundations for charitable purposes....Best thing Mr. Gates can do, as mentioned below by Chicklit, is to make a "huge" contibution through his Foundation for post-hurricane releif efforts after a storm.
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55. JeffMasters (Admin)
I added a section to the blog on the new HURRMIT project the Department of Homeland Security has launched to study hurricanes. And yes, wunderblogger Stackgenerator, who excessively hyped his "tunnels" to bring cold water to the surface to control hurricanes, did receive a permanent ban from my blog over a year ago.

Jeff Masters
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!!!!
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Quoting JeffMasters:
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.

I just love it... Bill(ionaire) Gates comes up with a pie-in-the-sky fantasy to "save the world," but the little people would have to pay for it.

As a believer in MMGW, I think it's pretty clear that the biggest direct threat to humanity from atmospheric changes is famine. The possibility of stronger cyclones is certainly glamorous and easy to focus on, and any kind of natural disaster could cause severe political unrest anywhere in the world, but food shortages are the real problem. That's what Gates should focus on, with his OWN money instead of ours.

The government's already tried hurricane modification. It's called Project Stormfury. The only good thing to come out of it is that they did learn a lot about hurricanes, including discovering the eyewall replacement cycle. Total bust at actually controlling the storms, though.
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Thx Doc...
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Quote: 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.

I 100% agree Dr. Masters. it would just be a waste of money as of now. Why did carlos not intensify even though it was in a perfect environment? a factor that we don't know about was preventing it. why do some storms spin up in hostile environments and some are completely shredded? 90% of the time is probably a factor we don't know about, 10% of the time is that one wave was probably stronger than the other.

we have too much more to learn before we can waste money on trying to stop stuff we don't fully know about. not only do we have to learn more about tropical cyclones and how the atmosphere and ocean affects it, but we also gotta learn to make 100x bigger ships and water pumps if they wanna have any hope to pull it off..
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dobson is right, despite the money that Bill Gates has, this plan still has to go through enviornmental reviews and many other road blocks

It would take years to get working if at all
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Good Morning everybody. I think playing with Mother Nature it's not good at all. But Jason, let me tell you something about what you said.
If you get a million dollars and you give it to someone who doesn't earn by himself, and you took all the money to someone who earn by working hard to deserve it, after one year the one whith the million will has loss every single cent and the one that you left without nothing will be reach again. That it's the way life is. Just my opinion.
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Waterspout pictures
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Quoting CaneWarning:
We've got water spouts all over in Tampa Bay.


you guys be safe over there... I imagine it is an awesome site to see though.. never seen one myself
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We talked about Bill Gates right after his article came out. Got an email from the Lamdi Fund in Haiti with a report of the sort of things they are doing to mitigate hurricane damage (such as replanting deforested hillsides.) I think there would be many worthwhile projects that Bill Gates could focus on that would make a huge difference. Singlehandely he could help reforest the hills of Haiti and that would be hurricane protection that would matter to a whole lot of very poor folks - but then it's sure not up to me to spend somebody else's money. I applaud his efforts against malaria - he's done wonderful work and I don't think he's a nut at all - just thinks way out of the box. Who knows what the future may hold?

Good morning everyone - it's always good to check in and see all the good discussion going on about all things weather.
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I'm hoping RitaEvac was being sarcastic there. When you punish success you end up with no successful people.

I'm guessing that by the time the tornado warning was issued, that waterspout went away. they don't last very long here.

Whatever happened to late afternoon thunderstorms in the Tampa area???
Member Since: August 14, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 553
We've got water spouts all over in Tampa Bay.
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I think he should just go ahead and sponser for the new quickscat satellite.
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Quoting RitaEvac:
I think if anyone is a millionaire, including pro Athletes and movie stars and singers, they should be forced to pay millions to help pay off the debt in the nation. If they don't like it don't be rich, be middle class!


That is the most immature comment I have heard on this blog in a long time... Penalized for being successful.. that is insane
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* Tornado Warning for...
western Hillsborough County in Florida.

* Until 1145 am EDT

* at 1121 am EDT... a waterspout moving toward shore was sighted near
town 'n' country... or 8 miles west of Tampa... moving east at 10
mph.

* The waterspout will be near...
Courtney Campbell causeway.
Town 'n' country.
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If the destruction/alteration of our atmosphere continues at its current pace, Bill Gates can design encapsulated communities where people can live without actually being subject to real environmental conditions, such as dangerous UV rays, extreme heat/cold and pollution. Of course, if you cannot pay, then you have to live on "the outside." Oh yeah, then Gates can design a computer in which you can transplant your brain and live forever...yeah, that's it.
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Quoting TampaSpin:
Tampa is under a Tornado warning


A waterspout has been reported.
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24. TampaSpin

If you slow a hurricane down here, you will see the reaction somewhere else; it's all about the system trying to find equilibrium. You can't screw with it without paying the price
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Tampa is under a Tornado warning
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Looks like the train is starting to fire up again.
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The biggest obstacle is both legal and environmental. Since it would involve federal action, there would have to be an environmental impact statement for this, as part of the National Environmental Policy Act. This step would, at the very least, tie the project up in court for years, and more than likely prevent it entirely.

Why not spend the money on restoring barrier islands and coastal wetlands?
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Wave off Africa looks organized, will have to wait and see what happens in the next 24-48 hours.
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Regarding Hurricanes in Fiction:

Mother of Storms, by John Barnes. VERY good, VERY technical, and highly recommended from me.
http://www.epiphyte.net/SF/mother-of-storms.html

1995 Hugo nominee
1995 Nebula final ballot

From that:
Mother of Storms will probably be labelled as "a chilling ecological thriller!" but it's much more than that. A military--excuse me, peacekeeping--strike by the UN causes sudden, rapid global warming, which results in the birth of a superhurricane of unprecedented size, strength, and longevity. This storm spawns a number of daughter storms, which proceed to rampage around the planet, doing a pretty good job of bringing civilization to its knees. This book has flood, pestilence, and war; there's famine too, but it's mostly offstage. There's death and destruction of incomprehensible magnitude. Nations and coastlines crumble.
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Quoting leftovers:
your not messing with mother nature its more like a tickle. miami would be thankful


Disagree, if you changed every major hurricane it would be more than a tickle......ONE your probably correct but, to think they would use an instrument just once would never happen.
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I think if anyone is a millionaire, including pro Athletes and movie stars and singers, they should be forced to pay millions to help pay off the debt in the nation. If they don't like it don't be rich, be middle class!
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Link
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God or Mother Nature created Hurricanse for a reason. The Planet needs them for a reason. Anything we do to try to disrupt its course of action would not be good IMO. I hate see homes and businesses destroyed but, if you live in harms way, you must except the lashing that a hurricane can bring and the destruction it may cause. I live here because i love the weather and love Tampa. But, i realize it can all be gone this year and i accept that as i know what falls down can be picked back up.
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Heck I have an idea for him, if he is bored, why not help the US pay off the national debt LOL

That would help out way more people than this idea.
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Quoting TampaSpin:
Gates needs to stick to computers......nice giving man that thinks out of the box tho that one has to respect.


Yea I admit that other than this, I have great respect for Bill Gates. He has all the money in the world, but gives a good amount of it back.
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Gates needs to stick to computers......nice giving man that thinks out of the box tho that one has to respect.
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Dr M is there some sort of petition that can be created or signed to prevent this?

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Blog Update
Reflector site for those at work, which includes Weather456, daily update.


AOI

AOI

Maybe when I quit getting the Blue Screen of Death... I might believe he can pull it off :)
Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
Quoting leftovers:
it would nice to have some control over the bad systems if we can prevent a landfalling cat 4 by downgrading it to a 2 that would help. slick it


Not if we dont know what the consequences are, or even if his plan will work. Hurricanes are one of Mother Natures' most effective ways of distributing energy thoughout the planet. Doing something like this could have very dangerous consequences.
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Quoting sporteguy03:
Personally it be nice to see Bill Gates develop software for weather research and help fun projects to help us better prepare and safe lives.

True. If Gates were really interested in helping people in hurricane-prone areas, there are plenty of existing organizations, methods to do that.
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I can follow his train of thought in saving human lives but the step beyond his thinking is what happens to the life cycles involved and the long term changes in climate that could occur. Bad idea to mess with Mother Nature to such an extent. the results are not often good.
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Thanks Dr. M; I wonder if any "legitimate" mets or professionals were actually involved in the "patent" for the proposed system; I seriously hope not...Playing with hurricanes, as suggested by this proposal, is almost akin to playing God. Mr. Gates may be the "god" of cyberspace, but not inner space......What was he thinking?
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Positive NAO for mid-late August

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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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