The Hurricane "Vaccine"

The swaths of ocean around the world where cyclonic storms form as the surface temperature rises. (Credit: NASA/GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER SCIENTIFIC VISUALIZATION STUDIO)

Parts of the East Coast are still recovering from the destruction of Hurricane Irene. The storm wreaked havoc, causing more than 40 deaths and billions of dollars in damages. One thing that is striking about hurricanes is that, even after years of study, all we really know how to do is deal with the symptoms; we don’t actually have a way to treat the disease itself.

So what if there were a hurricane “vaccine”?

This week on Marketplace, Stephen J. Dubner and Kai Ryssdal talk about the Salter Sink, an invention from Nathan Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures that could possibly prevent future storms. Here’s where to find Marketplace on the radio near you.


Humans are incredibly naive and arrogant to believe they can control such an important natural cycle without dire environmental consequences. Death is natural – do we find a way to prevent it forever? In order to live something must die. Furthermore, why is every economic question framed in money – which is not the only exchangeable asset?


Of course one wonders what the side effects would be, and whether it would be easier & cheaper just to build in such a way - e.g. not having a major coastal city about a dozen feet below sea level - that hurricanes would at worst be minor inconveniences.


How would something like this hold up through a storm, or when it is hit by a rogue wave? Would submarines be able to get around them easily? Would we have to designate shipping lanes for boats? And would the presence of thousands of huge funnels in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean interfere with marine life migration and communication (i.e., whale songs)?

Cool idea, really. I would love to see one tested to find out how much water is actually pumped downward.

Eric M. Jones.

And this compares with the cost and effort of the Great Wall of China how...?

Projects like this evaporate like the morning dew when the real numbers are calculated by real engineers. Human arrogance? I think rather it is common human stupidity to publish grand schemes without really understanding the magnitude of the problem or the effort involved.

And who's going to pay for this turkey?


Who would pay for this? A fine question.

Who is paying the cost of hurricanes now? Insurance companies, among others. So arguably insurance companies would have an interest in deploying such a system -- assuming it would be cost-effective.

But this creates a public good/free rider problem: Any insurer would get the benefit of the system, whether or not the insurer contributed to the cost. Given this market failure, I expect that we'd need some government intervention.

(Admittedly, I sense that Eric M. Jones's real question is, Who should bear the risk that investments in this system would not prove to be economical? That's always a challenge with public expenditures....)

Mike B

I'd rather get hit by a hurricane than give those patent trolls at "Intellectual" Ventures one cent of my tax dollars.


You've got the wrong perspective. Hurricanes are not a disease; they're the way the Earth rapidly removes excess heat energy from the tropics where it has accumulated during the climatically summer months. Evaporation moves the energy from the sea surface to the cloud tops where it can radiate to space. Latitudinal translocation eventually does the same thing, but with a detour poleward first. Preventing future storms is most likely impossible. The Earth has to get rid of the heat somehow and hurricanes are a pressure relief valve. On a human scale they are very destructive; on a global scale not so much.


Consistent with this idea, and in a possible post to this moderated thread, one I may have already submitted. Extend the idea of dispersing the heat. Hurricanes transport heat to the upper atmosphere where some translates to the poles and some escapes to space. Large hurricanes become somewhat self limiting when they churn the ocean surface, bringing cooler water to the surface and depriving themselves of heat and an energy source.

Ponder what happens when you prevent hurricanes by turning the warm surface under and bringing cool water to the surface. The energy stays and does not dissipate. When the total system warms sufficiently to cause a super hurricane and it churns the surface, it only brings up more warm water, further energizing the already super hurricane.

Within the limits of s-shaped curves and non-linear systems, I suspect a successful project would postpone large hurricanes to the future and allow them to become bigger and stronger by not dispersing the heat energy in more and smaller storms.

An insurance company funding this could reduce losses, provide better returns in the short run until regulation drives down policy payments, give executives big bonuses now! When the system catches up and bigger storms make bigger losses and the insurance rates have been driven down the companies cannot cover losses and the government will bail them out. Seems like a plausible scenario not unlike the housing bubble - just substitute stored energy for building overextended mortgage commitments.



Has this idea even been tested and the results published in a scientific journal? Or is it merely speculation that looks like it may work on paper? If so, then how is it any different from cold fusion, vitamin C for colds, or any number of ideas that sound good in theory, but didn't work in practice?


I subscribe to the idea that we need public policies to control externalities – that is, choices made by Joe that harm Sue, when Sue doesn’t have a say in the matter. Thus, I favor letting Sue sue Joe; where private suits are not an efficient means to redress the situation, I favor other forms of regulation.

I do not, however, subscribe to the morality panic about externalities – the idea that externalities reflect a moral failure of selfish people, and those selfish people must be made to suffer in order to do penance for their selfishness.

This distinction often arises where pollution and environmental regulation are concerned. Some people regard pollution (including greenhouse gas pollution) as a kind of Original Sin, and the only righteous remedy is to repent and dutifully accept a diminished standard of living as penance. Alternative methods of redressing the problem – cap and trade systems, for example – are regarded as a kind of cheating. Any effort to evade righteous punishment is evidence of insincere contrition, and only contrition can lead to salvation.

So it is with geoengineering. Sure, it might not work; sure, its costs might exceed its benefits. That’s the nature of innovation. Sure, it would have unanticipated consequences. But global warming is ALEADY having unanticipated consequences.

The Salter Sink seems pretty benign by geoengineering standards. After all, it’s just a means for stirring water! I look forward to seeing a dispassionate cost/benefit analysis. But I suspect the greatest obstacle to obtaining that analysis will be the dispassionate part.



However, speaking of unanticipated consequences ….

Alarm bells go off in my mind when I hear people discussing a policy built on the assumption that we can consume an effectively infinite amount of something. John Locke built his theory of private (real) property on the idea that there was an infinite supply of land, and therefore the act of any one person claiming land to himself had only a negligible effect on the supply of land available for another. A pretty goofy idea in an otherwise thoughtful philosophy.

We hunted whales (and other animals) with an abandon reflecting a view that the supply of them was basically infinite. And who could blame us? To suggest that mere man could influence the content of the oceans would have seemed crazy. Until recently we pumped oil from the ground and water from our aquifers with a similar disregard. Not so much anymore.

Geothermal heating is premised on the unstated assumption that the earth’s thermal sink is effectively infinite, and wind turbines are premised on the unstated assumption that wind energy is effectively infinite. The supply of this energy is so vast that we can extract it at will without consequence. And maybe that’s so. Alternatively….

So when I read about stirring the ocean, I wonder about the consequences of altering the stratification of the ocean temperatures. I expect many people would scoff at the suggestion that Salter Sinks would have any appreciable effect on raising the temperature of the ocean depths. And they may be right. But if Salter Sinks worked, I could imagine us coming to rely on them more and more; we could end up with more of them than we ever imagined.

It would be comforting to learn that someone had studied this contingency.



I hate the white-washing here of notoriously evil patent-troll Nathan M here. This is like having Bernie Madoff on the line as an investment consultant.


While the temperature of the surface water would be cooled, that water at depth would be slightly warmed. In time, that might have the ecosystem effects...or, worse, warm ocean currents that then travel to northern climes. These currents, now slightly warmer, will affect the glaciers and ice caps more drastically, raising sea levels.

At least one would think that might happen.

At the same time, I really like this idea. A few things I would add:

1) Make the Salter Sinks so that, say, a boat could dock alongside and people could fish from these "floating circular piers."

2) If the bottom of the tube could be meshed, then when it is unfolded, there would be no fish inside, hence no sharks inside, hence a great place to swim (except it would be very deep--unless you put in another mesh maybe ten feet below the surface). A truly portable beach.

3) Wouldn't you need lights and so forth so that, at night, a boat didn't run aground?

4) These rings could be used, perhaps, as fisheries (but would have to be guarded). That might make for better fishing in the Gulf.

5) Put electronics on them and we can gauge wind speed, wave height, earthquakes, tsunami alerts, and so forth.

The truth is that NO MATTER WHAT WE DO, there will be unintended consequences. Some of the good, some of them bad.



It's a terrible idea. They might be destructive, but they also bring much needed water to the entire east coast. Without hurricanes, we fall into a drought. Actually, I would love to see that theory worked out here with numbers. But they are essential to North America...


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