Opinion: How to tame a hurricane

POSTED: 11/19/13 4:11 PM

Hurricane, tornado, typhoon – they’re all members of the same family of ugly storm systems. Is it possible to tame such a storm before it created havoc like Haiyan did in the Philippines, or Katrina in New Orleans, or Luis – back in the day – in St. Maarten?

Good news folks, USA Today reported in 2009. “Bill Gates is getting involved with the weather.” Several years after Katrina had devastated New Orleans the founder of Microsoft, philanthropist and multi-billionaire had filed several patents for a method to tame hurricanes. Good news: if one man manages to eradicate malaria, taming hurricanes should also be possible.

Gates’ plan was remarkably simple. Hurricanes occur over warm seawater that serves as the source of energy for their devastating power. Cool down the water in the path the hurricane follows and you’ll take away the energy-source. The hurricane will perish, or at least become a lot less powerful.

The question was: how? Again, simple. Under the relatively warm layer at the surface there is literally an ocean of cool water. Bring this to the surface and the top layer cools down; the hurricane’s power is then also taken away.

A temperature drop of a couple of degrees in an area of one hundred square kilometers is already sufficient to decapitate a hurricane. Gates suggested building an armada of vessels with the ability to pump up large amounts of cold water from a depth of 150 meters.

It was a nice plan, but the figures did not add up. The American Hurricane Institute NOAA did the math and concluded that to achieve the desired effect it is necessary to cool down 19,000 square kilometers of water, an area half the size of the Netherlands. Impossible, the NOAA noted. The organization did not even take into account the damaging side-effects pumping around that much water would have on marine life.

Gates’ plan is not unique. Earlier scientists came up with a system of pipes and pumps for pumping up cold water in an area from the Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico. The idea was to switch on the pumps in the probably path of the hurricane. Challenge: the plan required 1.6 million pipes that would have to be linked to pumps and electricity. It would cost billions of dollars while the result remained uncertain.

Another idea, this one from Arkadii Leonov, a professor in applied mathematics at the University of Akron in Ohio, suggests to send fighter planes into the eye of the storm and to let them go through the sound barrier. The shockwave would then disorganize the internal streams. Leonov patented his idea in 2008. “An air force general told me that this should be possible,” he said. “But my university does not have the computers to test the models.” For lack of these computers, nothing was done with this idea.

Back in the sixties of last century, one of the weirdest ideas surfaced: detonate a nuclear bomb in the eye of the storm. In a time when the world has seen almost 2,000 above ground nuclear tests, a bomb more or less would not make any difference, the genius behind this plan reasoned. The plan was never tested, if only because failure would saddle the world with a radioactive storm – a prospect that is even less attractive than a run of the mill hurricane.

The American government invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a program called Stormfury in the sixties and seventies. But experiments with silver iodide to create clouds in the eye of the storm had hardly any effect and sometimes made a storm worse.

By now almost everybody seems to be convinced that further research into taming hurricanes is senseless. At the Dutch meteorological institute KNMI nobody spends time on it. The American Wim Wenger, who came up with the idea to cool down the sea water with air bubbles, does not react to emails and his website has not been updated since 2005.

Nobody talks about Bill Gates’ initiative either anymore. The hurricane center NOAA does nothing in the field of combating hurricanes and considers them as the inevitable force of nature. Arkadii Leonov also has given up hope that his idea will ever become reality: “Next summer I will retire,” he says.

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