Another Look at an Unorthodox Hurricane-Prevention Idea

(Photo: photosteve101)

Very interesting backgrounder on Stephen Salter, the British scientist who, in the course of trying to turn ocean waves into electric power, discovered a potential way to prevent, or at least limit, the impact of hurricanes:

Devastating tropical storms of the kind that battered the U.S. last week could be weakened and rendered less deadly using a simple and cheap technology based on a surprising component – old car tyres.

One of Britain’s leading marine engineers, Stephen Salter, emeritus professor of engineering design at Edinburgh university and a global pioneer of wave power research, has patented with Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold the idea of using thousands of tyres lashed together to support giant plastic tubes which extend 100m deep into the ocean.

Wave action on the ocean surface would force warm surface water down into the deeper ocean. If non-return valves were used, he says, the result would be to mix the waters and cool the surface temperature of the ocean to under 26.5C, the critical temperature at which hurricanes form.

This is the same hurricane-prevention invention we discussed in a brief Freakonomics Radio segment and in greater depth in SuperFreakonomics:

How does it work? Imagine one of these skirted inner tubes— a giant, funky, man- made jellyfish— floating in the ocean. As a warm wave splashes over the top, the water level inside the ring rises until it is higher than the surrounding ocean. “When you have water elevated above the surface in a tube like that,” Nathan [Myhrvold] explains, “it’s called ‘hydraulic head.’”

Hydraulic head is a force, created by the energy put into the waves by wind. This force would push the warm surface water down into the long plastic cylinder, ultimately flushing it out at the bottom, far beneath the surface. As long as the waves keep coming — and they always do — the hydraulic head’s force would keep pushing surface water into the cooler depths, which inevitably lowers the ocean’s surface temperature. The process is low-impact, non- polluting, and slow: a molecule of warm surface water would take about three hours to be flushed out the bottom of the plastic cylinder.

Now imagine deploying these floats en masse in the patches of ocean where hurricanes grow. Nathan envisions “a picket fence” of them between Cuba and the Yucatán and another skein off the southeastern seaboard of the United States. They’d also be valuable in the South China Sea and in the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia. How many would be needed? Depending on their size, a few thousand floats might be able to stop hurricanes in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

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  1. Dan Aris says:

    Now, I may be applying too simplistic an understanding of the forces involved here, but…

    Wouldn’t this just delay the formation of a hurricane? And make it much, much worse when it did finally form?

    I mean, it’s not like the energy here is being removed from the ocean: it’s just being pushed deeper down. This method appears to use the top 100m (or whatever depth) of ocean as a giant buffer for the surface energy. But presumably, that buffer *can* get filled up, and then you’ve got this much, much greater reservoir of energy for hurricanes to draw on.

    And what of the sea life 100m down that’s suddenly dealing with an influx of warm water? Not to mention dealing with an influx of surface sea life (at least at the microscopic level). Leaving aside the thermodynamics of it all, what ecological impact would this have?

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    • Dave says:

      Sounds like another possibility of an unintended consequence…

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      • Brazzy says:

        Yeah, calling something “low impact” that has the alteration of weather patters at a scale of thousands of kilometers as its *intended* consequence is… bold. And not the good kind of bold.

        Still, given the massive devastation caused by hurricanes, could the uninteded consequences really be so much worse that it should not be tried?

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  2. Ben D says:

    Key words: “might” and “idea”

    Let’s not count these chickens before they hatch please.

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  3. MIke Colucci says:

    Interesting idea in light of the damage that hurricanes cause. However, I wonder what the law of unintended consequences would reveal? If we were to dampen or suppress these hurricane forces how would it manifest itself?

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  4. Nylund says:

    And does this warm surface water have an effect on the temperatures deeper in the ocean? Some of the things that live down there may be sensitive to temperature changes.

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  5. Quinton says:

    I totally agree this is interesting but for an institution that built its reputation on unintended consequences (and just did a podcast on the topic), its a little odd you aren’t mentioning there might be some unforeseen effects from toying with the world’s atmospheric currents. How confident are we that stopping a hurricane doesn’t cause a drought somewhere else (less moisture circulating perhaps)? Or accelerate the melting of polar ice caps (this would seem to raise the ocean temperature slightly)? You might think those questions don’t make sense but the real question is, what are we not thinking about?

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  6. Tardis says:

    Unintended consequences. Marine migration, leeching tire particles into the ocean, what other unforeseen problems would this impart? I’m no scientist, but the theory sounds better than the actual application.

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    • Travis says:

      Well, it seems to me there are two potential consequences related to themodynamics. With enough volume to influence the surface temperature of the water, you could end up with two possibilities.

      First, over time the lower levels of the ocean could heat up, which could do anything from making hurricane season last longer, to make more intense hurricanes once they do form.

      The other potential consequence is that with enough volume to have a real impact on hurricane formation, this could have an impact on the gulf stream current.

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  7. Mike says:

    When we push the warmer water down deeper, how will that impact the growth of Godzilla-type creatures in those depths? Has there been an economic analysis of the damage from hurricanes vs. large sea creatures?

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  8. Statspotting says:

    Also, spare some time to think abt this: try to solve problems from the future – this could be a reaction to the present. we will have different challenges in 2030.

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