From H-bomb father Edward Teller to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, for decades inventors have been churning out wild ideas to stop hurricanes before they hit land. Teller once suggested detonating a nuclear weapon to blow the storm off course, while Gates patented a series of pumps to push warm water down and cooler water up; neither plan got much traction.
The latest scheme—this one from Norway—proposes stretching a submerged “bubble net” across the path of an oncoming storm. To OceanTherm CEO Olav Hollingsæter, a hurricane’s swath of destruction could be slowed or even avoided using a technique that has kept Norwegian fjords ice-free since the late 1960s.
Imagine a long, thin, flexible pipe stretched between two ships. The pipe is moored a few hundred feet below the surface, like an upside-down shower curtain. A massive stream of bubbles escapes from the pipe, forming a frothy white current as it rises to the surface. That might give you an idea of what the creators of this project are envisioning. (Or perhaps just think of a giant aquarium bubbler.)
Hurricanes gain their energy from warm surface waters, in the process adding moisture to the air. Hotter surface water leads to more moisture. Hollingsæter, a retired submariner, says the upward current of bubbles would push cooler water to the ocean surface, in theory robbing the hurricane of its energy. “If we were able to avoid the water being so hot,” says Hollingsæter, “the hurricanes won’t be able to build such strength. They all disappear when they come into colder water.”
Some scientists say that these geoengineering projects are doomed to fail because hurricanes are complex systems formed by an interaction of both atmospheric and ocean conditions. Even if someone could change any one of these variables, it wouldn’t be enough to affect the hurricane. “Hurricanes certainly need warm water, but they also need convection, a rotational component, and light wind shear above them,” says James Fleming, professor of science, technology and society at Colby College and a visiting professor at Harvard University.
Still, some weather warriors continue to believe that given the right technology and, of course, enough money, humans could engineer a solution to block natural disasters like Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that struck the Louisiana coast last week, causing widespread damage to homes, releasing toxic chemicals, and killing over a dozen people.
In Norway, OceanTherm already uses its bubble net technology to keep ice away from two power plants situated along the water’s edge. In these narrow deep channels along the Norwegian coast, the bubble technology sort of works in reverse. There, they submerge a 1,500-foot long metal tube about 180 feet deep, force compressed air into the tube from a surface ship, and the escaping bubbles rise aloft, bringing warmer and saltier water from the depths to mix with colder freshwater on top. (In Norway, cold rivers drain into fjords, sandwiching warmer ocean water on top.) This bubble current warms the surface and keeps the fjords ice-free. In other parts of Norway, the upward bubble-net current is deployed to collect plastic junk from fjords, rivers, and canals.
This video made by OceanTherm during a 2019 field test demonstrates how bubbles escaping from an underwater pipe rise and bring warmer water to the surface. It also shows an airborne drone image of temperature differences in the water from the upwelling bubble zone, as compared to the cooler surrounding water.
In the past, California state highway officials set underwater bubble nets to reduce the fish-killing sounds created by underwater construction projects, such as bridges spanning the San Francisco Bay. Offshore energy firms have studied the idea to project marine mammals from offshore drilling platforms.
While bubble net technology isn’t brand new, deploying it on a massive scale in the Gulf of Mexico or tropical Atlantic Ocean would be unprecedented. But that doesn’t mean that the Norwegian team doesn’t have some ideas of how to make it so. One thought would be to string the bubble net across the 135-mile wide Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico. That’s a choke point where Atlantic Ocean water enters the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s a perfect spot to deploy a giant bubble net, according to Grim Eidnes, a former physical oceanographer at Norway’s research institution SINTEF and chief science advisor to OceanTherm.
“We could do that by having one system working from Mexico and another from the Cuban side, with two different compressors and bubble systems,” Eidnes says. “We could hang it from the top with buoys, or mount it on moorings. The easiest way is to have two or more vessels. The idea is to go before the storm, cool the water and take them down. Then we would cut off the energy supply from the hurricane.”
Such a project would take tens of millions of dollars, but a pilot project to prove its feasibility would cost considerably less, according to OceanTherm officials. The company has received some grant money from the Norwegian government to construct additional computer simulations about how the bubble device might work in the ocean, and they are looking for investors in the US willing to support an experimental project.
Nobody has ever tried to lasso a hurricane with a bubble net—or anything else, for that matter—although OceanTherm’s CEO believes it’s worth exploring. “We can foresee a fleet of 20 ships with compressors and generators would be able to prevent a warm current from fueling the hurricane,” Hollingsæter says. “When hurricanes are large like Laura, they are very difficult to manage. But they are small in the beginning. If we are there and we can see a hurricane coming into a large area with hot water, we can work slowly over a period to stop the water from being so hot. Then maybe then the hurricane will maybe be more of a low-pressure system coming in.”
The idea of manipulating a hurricane has its origins in efforts that date back to the post-World War II years, when Pentagon officials believed they could alter the weather with nuclear weapons, according to Fleming. Proponents such as Teller believed that smaller bombs could be used to dig harbors in Alaska, shave off the Santa Barbara Mountains to reduce air pollution in Los Angeles, or even destroy a hurricane, says Fleming, author of the book Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control.
The concept of nuking a hurricane was actually first raised during a speech by Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous and a noted eugenicist) during a speech to more than 18,000 people in Madison Square Garden on December 3, 1945. Huxley proposed using nuclear weapons to control the environment. Later, the military began studying the idea seriously. Although the plan never got off the ground, it did result in something called Project Cirrus. In October, 1947, Hurricane King was moving off the South Carolina coast, losing energy. As part of Project Cirrus, military officials decided to drop silver iodide or dry ice into the storm to promote ice crystals and perhaps weaken the storm even further. A B-17 dumped 180 pounds of dry ice into the storm clouds—but something else happened. The storm intensified, made a U-turn, and headed straight for Savannah, Georgia. According to this 2017 account in The Atlantic, it killed one person and racked up $3 million in property damages.
Meteorologists eventually concluded that the cloud seeding didn’t affect the storm, but the negative publicity delayed any more cloud seeding experiments for another 20 years. The idea was revived between the mid-1960s through the early 1980s by scientists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration who actively pursued hurricane modification through Project STORMFURY, which also was designed to seed clouds with silver iodide, creating ice crystals. The problem was that after collecting data, the atmospheric researchers discovered that hurricane systems already include ice crystals, so they couldn’t really tell if the ones they added changed anything.
Bomb expert Edward Teller brought up the nuclear option against hurricanes several times, most recently in a 1990 speech. It was never seriously tested or considered, although President Donald Trump reportedly asked aides whether bombing hurricanes was possible on two separate White House conversations, according to an Axios report from August 2019.
Fleming notes that dropping a nuclear weapon in a hurricane would be a violation of existing treaties between the US and Russia. “If you did nuke a hurricane, you would scatter radioactivity everywhere,” says Fleming. “And there would be a litigious trail along the hurricane’s path.”
A Microsoft spinoff, Intellectual Ventures, filed for several patents in 2008 to pump warm water to the seafloor and bring cooler water to the surface using a number of ships. The mixing of waters would, in theory, slow the progress of the hurricane’s progress. That project, however, hasn’t gone anywhere.
As for stopping a hurricane with a bubble net, Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the idea is theoretically possible, but likely prohibitively expensive. Emanuel is an expert in tropical storm formation. He says if something could cool the surface water by 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) inside the powerful eyewall of the hurricane, the storm would weaken significantly. But cooling such a huge patch of ocean several hundred miles in diameter would take a fleet of ships, airplanes and massive amounts of compressed air, Emmanuel says. “It’s possible, sure, if you put enough buoys out, yes,” he says. “It’s a question of whether you could afford to do it.”
On the other hand, historian Fleming compares hurricane geoengineering projects to science fiction. “You need a leap of faith and some gullible investors,” he says.
Update 9-1-2020 12:00 PM: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Grim Eidnes’ name and his job title.
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