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 WeatherStudent:


Aug 11th my friend.


Do you think we will see Ana by then?
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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:
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The days they run altogether
With this predictable tropical weather
Right now, it's all O's (0,0,0)
And there's nothing on GOES
It's as mean as S&M leather.

Member Since: August 26, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 3420
1709. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
your welcome chaser
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The spots in the centre of the GOM are pretty dark...
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1707. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
later kman sleep well friend
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Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
that is a sst map ws


Thanks Keeper!
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Quoting kmanislander:


The blog will become very fast when the action starts and the trolls will come out. Fun though.


Nice i never even noticed the blog last year when Ike was on its way or i woulda been here blogging it up with yall
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Quoting WeatherStudent:


Hi


Hi JFV...when is your b-day?
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Well I am out for tonight. Still on vacation until next Monday so catch you all tomorrow.

BFN
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Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
yeah aussie 31.5 and rising


Here is something that will make you happy KOG

Add 4-5 to get the temp here
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Quoting mrnicktou:


I live in it its nasty. Ever since i came back ive been on here waiting for the next storm. I've learned so much and have found lots of links that i woulda never found its been fun learning about everything


The blog will become very fast when the action starts and the trolls will come out. Fun though.
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1699. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
yeah aussie 31.5 and rising
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1698. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting WeatherStudent:
Thank you very much for your TCHP maps, Keeps.
that is a sst map ws
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Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:


here is current sst maps for alt.basin as of jul 27 00z

is that 32c+ in the majority of the GOM?
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1696. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting Stormchaser2007:


Hey Keeper can I have a link to that please?
i sent it by email let me know if ya like it it has everything ya need all the goodies
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Quoting kmanislander:


Tell me about it. Overnighted at the airport Marriott last Saturday and could hardly breathe outside LOL


I live in it its nasty. Ever since i came back ive been on here waiting for the next storm. I've learned so much and have found lots of links that i woulda never found its been fun learning about everything
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Ace...I know what you mean...trust me.
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Quoting Acemmett90:

i at a leader ship canfrace in dc i im actully thinking of appling to this nice university but as everone knows its tough to get into oh ysh i will be preety much unreachible for two weeks


OMG....Your a product of the Florida school system.
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Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:


here is current sst maps for alt.basin as of jul 27 00z


Hey Keeper can I have a link to that please?
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Quoting mrnicktou:


Hey I'm new here but i saw that and decided to talk. I just went on a cruise to alaska and i live in houston it took a long time for me to adjust back to this crazy heat we are getting


Tell me about it. Overnighted at the airport Marriott last Saturday and could hardly breathe outside LOL
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Thank you, I've been reading the posts for about a week now and decided I should try and learn a few things or two
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Quoting WeatherStudent:


you're saying all of this for a reason, kman. i believe you. you're level of credibility on here is astounding myself.


None of this is written in stone my friend, just an opinion. However, mother nature produces hurricanes to redistribute heat from the tropics poleward. So far this year, that heat is still accumulating.
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1682. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
time changes messes up the body few days ya will be doing better did ya rtn to work right away or ya got a few more extra days
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Ace...read the previous posts to catch up... Some good poems on here!
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Welcome, Mrnick.
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Quoting kmanislander:


I jsut went on a cruise to alaska and im from houston it took a long time to get readjusted to this crazy heat we are getting
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Quoting kmanislander:


Hi there KOTG.

After the cool temps in Alaska I am having to adjust to being home again !


Hey I'm new here but i saw that and decided to talk. I just went on a cruise to alaska and i live in houston it took a long time for me to adjust back to this crazy heat we are getting
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Quoting kmanislander:


Actually the time changes were the worse. From Houston to Vancouver, set your watch back 2 hrs. On the ship, set your watch back another hr from Vancouver to Alaska then set it forward again on the return trip. On arrival in Houston to overnight on the way home, clocks forward 2 hours.

Really messes you up.
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Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
hope ya dont catch a cold from changing climates so quickly


Actually the time changes were the worse. From Dallas to Vancouver, set your watch back 2 hrs. On the ship, set your watch back another hr from Vancouver to Alaska then set it forward again on the return trip. On arrival in Dallas to overnight on the way home, clocks forward 2 hours.

Really messes you up.
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1673. JRRP
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1672. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
hello ws
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1671. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)


here is current sst maps for alt.basin as of jul 27 00z
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Agreed. The conditions in the Atlantic, and more so the Carib. and GOM are ripe. And will get more so. So far the t-waves have had no chance because of dry air. But how long can that persist?
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Quoting GeoffreyWPB:


With the right ingrediants in place...no doubt.


oh and just to add to it, it will be a top 10 Cat 5 as well, meaning it will be stronger than Ivan. Just my opinion; I hope it doesnt affect anyone at that intensity. I just have a feeling we will see that this season.
Quoting GeoffreyWPB:
Sounds like a great trip you had Kman...could you see Russia from the ship? In all seriousness, I would love to take a cruise like that!


I didn't see Russia but did see Palin's home in Juneau. She was out of town LOL
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Quoting kmanislander:


One 5, a 4 and two 3's. May sound high but if so I like Crow LOL


Not high at all for someone who is realistic lol
Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
I also feel there is a realistic chance we see a Category 5 hurricane this season, due to how hot the waters on in some areas


With the right ingrediants in place...no doubt.
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
I also feel there is a realistic chance we see a Category 5 hurricane this season, due to how hot the waters on in some areas


One 5, a 4 and two 3's. May sound high but if so I like Crow LOL
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1663. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)


here is current sst maps for alt.basin as of jul 27 00z
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About JeffMasters

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.