Scientists are looking into ways to weaken hurricanes early on.
Hurricane Michael is expected to bring life-threatening winds and storm surge to Florida’s Gulf Coast.
As heavy winds from Hurricane Michael begin to lash Florida’s Gulf Coast, forecasters are urging residents of the panhandle, Big Bend, and Nature Coast to prepare for life-threatening storm surge and flooding.
With so much potential devastation, one may wonder whether anything can be done to stop Michael in its tracks.
It’s quite a daunting challenge, given that the average hurricane’s wind energy equals about half of the world’s electricity production in a year. The energy it releases as it forms clouds is 200 times the world’s annual electricity use.
The heat energy of a fully formed hurricane is “equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes,” as NOAA meteorologist Chris Landsea has explained.
And these are typical hurricanes, not extraordinarily intense ones we’ve seen lately, like Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Harvey, and Hurricane Maria.
There’s really not much anyone can do once hurricanes like these spool up. Scientists have tried and failed to stop full-on hurricanes in their tracks.
But rising sea levels and increasing average temperatures due to climate change are further expanding the destructive reach of these storms. And with an eye to the potential to save lives and avoid billions of dollars in damage, some engineers and entrepreneurs, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, are studying ways to dial back the destruction.
Much of the research is focused on manipulating temperature, moisture, and wind to steer when and where these storms will occur. It involves geoengineering with giant tubes and aerosols. And it’s pretty intriguing — if still quite preliminary.
Scientists have tried to stop hurricanes — and failed miserably
Weather modification has a long, sordid history and hurricanes have inspired some of the more far-fetched proposals, from bombarding cyclones with sonic booms from aircraft to beaming down microwaves from space into nascent storms.
In one of the most infamous attempts to slay a hurricane, Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir led a US military experiment in 1947 to seed Hurricane King with ice in hopes of sapping its vigor. The storm at the time was sliding away from the United States and losing strength.
In an excerpt in the Atlantic from his book Caesar’s Last Breath, author Sam Kean explained Langmuir’s idea: Growing ice in the eye of the hurricane would make the eye grow wider and collapse the storm. But Hurricane King didn’t respond as expected. “To everyone’s horror, it then pivoted—taking an impossible 135-degree turn—and began racing into Savannah, Georgia, causing $3 million in damage ($32 million today) and killing one person,” Kean writes.
Other meteorologists at the time were skeptical that Langmuir’s experiment made the storm change course.
US scientists continued to study seeding clouds inside hurricanes as late as 1983 under Project STORMFURY. But they concluded, according to NOAA, that “cloud seeding had little prospect of success because hurricanes contained too much natural ice and too little supercooled water.”
The remaining tactics for fighting hurricanes require weakening them before they start by deliberately cooling seas and brightening clouds when storms are brewing, robbing them of the fuel for their destruction.
Stephen Salter, an emeritus professor of engineering design at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has studied how to harness wave energy since the 1970s, and in 2003 began looking into using this energy to cool the seas.
A less-crazy but still far-out idea: cooling the seas with a giant tube
For ocean temperatures, the magic number for hurricane formation is 26.5 degrees Celsius (or 79.7 degrees Fahrenheit). So what if you could nudge that number down early on and reduce the risks and intensities of ensuing storms?
That was what Salter set out to do.
To cool the surface of the ocean, Salter invented a wave-powered pump that would move warm surface water down to depths as far as about 650 feet.
Made from a ring of tires lashed together around a tube extending below the surface, waves would overtop the ring, pushing the column of water down, while a check valve in the tube would keep it from flowing back.
Salter’s namesake device, the Salter Sink, was invented in 2009 at Intellectual Ventures, a technology firm led by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold.