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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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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Not trying to be a downcaster, but lets see what happens when it rolls off. If I am wrong, than I am wrong (and wouldn't be the first). But if convection goes poof, with no SAL, then you might want to give creedence to what i am saying.
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1761. amd
just looked at the buoys off the coast of africa: Waters seem to be warm enough as long as the disturbance stays below 12 degrees north.

Link

Unfortunately, we have no buoys near the cape verde islands to see what the water temperatures truly are at 15 degrees north off the coast of africa.



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cv
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Quoting Stormchaser2007:


I see Mid 80's. The waves 'center' appears to be a 12n 15W.
sorry, the wave is not at 0 degrees
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Quoting hunkerdown:
img src="" alt="" />


I see Mid 80's. The waves 'center' appears to be a 12n 15W.
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And here...we...go.
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Looks like whatever's coming off of Africa has the all clear for SAL at least for now.

SplitView
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1755. XL
Hi Chicklit

Thanks for that. I have had mainly positive experiences in here and find it a tremendouse resource.

Joanne
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Quoting Stormchaser2007:


What SST map are you looking at? I dont really see temps that low...
img src="" alt="" />
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Quoting XL:
Evening all

As the season seems to be hotting up (UK phrase - sorry) I would like to thank everyone in advance and apologise for the silly questions I am likely to ask.

Joanne

Ask on, Joanne...there's usually someone here who is willing to answer you.
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Shears near 0-5 knots over the Cape Verde islands.

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Quoting Stormchaser2007:


What SST map are you looking at? I dont really see temps that low...


yea neither do I
Quoting hunkerdown:
plus a pocket of water temps in the 70s and stable air.


What SST map are you looking at? I dont really see temps that low...
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Ya know what I'm sayin'?
ForGoodnessSake
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


And strong tropical waves can overcome a downward MJO


Not so sure of that but we'll see. I give this a small chance at developing. Shear looks to lessen in its path later on.
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Quoting Stormchaser2007:
SAL is pretty much cleared out and shear is around 5 knots so that wave off of Africa only has the MJO going against it.

plus a pocket of water temps in the 70s and stable air.
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Nothing in the Gulf anytime soon..

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Quoting Stormchaser2007:
SAL is pretty much cleared out and shear is around 5 knots so that wave off of Africa only has the MJO going against it. Although that may be enough to hamper if not prohibit development.



And strong tropical waves can overcome a downward MJO
1744. XL
Evening all

As the season seems to be hotting up (UK phrase - sorry) I would like to thank everyone in advance and apologise for the silly questions I am likely to ask.

Joanne
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SAL is pretty much cleared out and shear is around 5 knots so that wave off of Africa only has the MJO going against it. Although that may be enough to hamper if not prohibit development.

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Patrap has a crow recipe, fit for late season.
The comparisons to 2004 make me shudder.
I don't like what's coming off of Afrika.CapeVerde
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Quoting Drakoen:
GOM has too much energy built up. Nothing has tapped into that energy. We certainly don't need a storm in there especially one that goes over the loop current.


Getting ready for our second round -both after dark. Must be some "Gulf Energy".
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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:



2008:


This is pretty scary...
2005:


Wow. All I can say is HOT DAMN!
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1739. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
chaser i gave it to you you can give it to them iam out for the night later all
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Quoting FloridaTigers:
So did that wave come off Africa yet?


Wave axis is still on the mainland.

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Quoting TampaSpin:


StormChaser thats some dam good analysis my friend......great job but very eye opening....wow


I agree, It makes me nervous to think what would happen if a storm did find favorable Upper Level conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.
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Quoting TampaSpin:


StormChaser thats some dam good analysis my friend......great job but very eye opening....wow


Thing is that the Gulf is still clear with virtually no clouds over it so it should continue to warm into September...We may actually see the bulk of the season form closer to land this year instead of MDR development.

GOM Shortwave
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Quoting SevereHurricane:


Chaser may I please have a link to where you got that information.


I second that....
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20443
So did that wave come off Africa yet?
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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 me may see some trouble later on.

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





Chaser may I please have a link to where you got that information.
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We acutally need a depression in the GOM to cool things down some...or we will be in big time trouble if something major tapps that first...
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20443
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 me 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. Karina and Rita.





StormChaser thats some dam good analysis my friend......great job but very eye opening....wow
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20443
Slightly off topic, but I was looking for a name for my solo music project, and one of the previous blogs provided the perfect name: Snowcloud Five.

http://www.myspace.com/snowcloudfive

Just made it a few minutes ago, I'll post music up within the week. Thanks, Dr. Masters for the whole story. :)
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Quoting Drakoen:
GOM has too much energy built up. Nothing has tapped into that energy. We certainly don't need a storm in there especially one that goes over the loop current.


I was 30mile off shore last week and you could utterly feel the heat vapor coming off the water....it was unreal......don't recall feeling it like that ever...Then had the waverunners out latter and its even worse now....its like a sauna....i think i spelled that right.
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20443
I don't know if it was mentioned earlier, and I know you don't like TWC...but did anyone see the tropical update with Dr. Lyons talking about the cool water flow from the Canary Islands down toward the ITCZ and out to the West ? They had the water temps off Africa heading 1/4 to 1/3 of the wat to the islands in the 76 - 79 degree range. Mighty chilly for tropical development along with the stable conditions it causes with the warm/hot air aloft.
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Just one more and then it's good night
"Tunnels" end may yield up it's light
This season's no bust
So keep watchin' we must
'Cause a storm's start may be within sight.

'Night all! :)
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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.



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Quoting WeatherStudent:


yes, if not, i'll eat crow. yourself?


I have my crow in a slow cooker...I thought a named storm in July.
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1723. Drakoen
Quoting WeatherStudent:


God for bid, Drakoen.


yes God forbid WeatherStudenster!!!!
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High SST’s does not a storm make. There are so many other factors that have to come into play and so far, those factors have not metabolized.
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
Try this one on for size

Even though seasons a bore
I cant stand the poems anymore
I dont want too seem cold
They are really getting old
I have to be Oz on ignore


LOL...that's a good funny one!
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1718. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting Drakoen:
GOM has too much energy built up. Nothing has tapped into that energy. We certainly don't need a storm in there especially one that goes over the loop current.
if conditions line up it will be a 5 for sure that we really don't want
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But just wait cause the weather will turn
As sure as the sun will still burn
In a few weeks we may see
Our first real TC
Imagine how much we will learn!
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Try this one on for size lol

Even though seasons a bore
I cant stand the poems anymore
I dont want too seem cold
They are really getting old
I have to put Oz on ignore

just playing ;)
1714. Drakoen
GOM has too much energy built up. Nothing has tapped into that energy. We certainly don't need a storm in there especially one that goes over the loop current.
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Quoting WeatherStudent:


Aug 11th my friend.


Do you think we will see Ana by then?
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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.