Thursday, December 14, 2006

How To Destroy A Hurricane

When a major hurricane was threatening the United States in the late 1980’s, Bob Sheets, then the director of the National Hurricane Center, received an urgent telegram from a French engineering firm. The telegram said the company would destroy the hurricane if the U.S. government would pay a substantial amount of money and then fly the company’s engineers and equipment into the storm.

“Of course, no details could be given about the methods to be used,” writes Bob in his 2001 book, Hurricane Watch. “Also, the money had to be paid in advance.” Needless to say, Bob and the government turned down the offer.

Another time Bob received a letter from a man who suggested having a fleet of propeller-driven aircraft fly in a clockwise direction through a hurricane in order to blow against the counterclockwise winds and unwind the storm. “Not only was this idea inherently silly, but this mad scientist had the planes flying the wrong way if the goal was to unwind the storm,” writes Bob.

Another person suggested installing giant windmills along our coastline to blow the storm back out to sea. Even if the windmills could generate enough wind miles away, the blast wouldn’t help since hurricanes are steered by winds in the upper atmosphere.

Over the years, Bob and other officials at the National Hurricane Center have received all sorts of ideas to weaken or control a hurricane. After all, if we can put a man on the moon and harness the power of the atom, why can’t we make hurricanes go away? Well, researchers at a New Mexico company think they may have found a way to answer that question.

Addressing a conference on tropical storms and hurricanes earlier this year, Philip Kithil, the CEO of Atmocean, proposed a radical idea to reduce the power of storms: reduce the temperature of the ocean.

Hurricanes get their energy from warm water. The temperature of the ocean during the peak of hurricane season in August and September reaches the middle 80 degree Fahrenheit, with isolated locations in the Gulf of Mexico in the 90’s. The warmer the water, theoretically, the stronger the storm. On the other hand, if a hurricane moves over cooler ocean temperatures the storm will weaken.

Kithil’s idea is to deploy an array of wave-activated deep ocean pumps in front of the approaching hurricane. These pumps would be attached to a 1000-meter long, 1.5-meter flexible tube moored to the ocean floor ready to transport the cooler ocean water to the surface.

Kithil estimates that a single pump would be able to able to propel enough cold water to the surface in two days to cool a 50-meter deep layer of ocean by 1 degree C. In a field test conducted near Bermuda last year, Atmocean lowered the surface temperature of ocean water by 4 degrees C using a test pump attached to a 25 cm wide, 160 meter long tube.

Kithil says we would need thousands of these pumps deployed in the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard to make this plan work. He estimates each pump would cost around $2,800, meaning the initial cost of the project would be in the millions. Add regular maintenance, environmental concerns, legal and political issues and it’s clear that Kithil has his hands full.

Still, he is determined to make his idea a reality. Atmocean will be conducting more field tests of its deep ocean pumps in the coming months, along with additional computer model simulations.

Money remains the key issue. Kithil hopes to convince Congress to fund his proposal suggesting that lawmakers create a “Hurricane Mitigation Trust Fund” similar to the Highway Trust Fund that funded the interstate highway system in the 1950’s.

Kithil has many, many obstacles to overcome before his idea will even be considered but, who knows, maybe someday we’ll have a network of ocean pumps deployed around our coastline. It is a lot better idea than installing windmills.

Posted at 8:39 AM