Imagine if Hurricane Delta, the Category 3 hurricane striking Louisiana Friday, could have been stopped in its tracks a week ago before it even became a hurricane. And imagine if all that was needed was cold water.
It may sound like another crazy hurricane-killing idea, but Olav Hollingsaeter says such technology could be just a few years away.
It’s called the Bubble Curtain, a series of perforated pipes that use compressed air to bubble deep, cold ocean water up to the surface, cutting off a storm system’s supply of the warm water it needs to intensify into a hurricane. Hollingsaeter, a former Norwegian Naval submarine officer and chief executive officer of OceanTherm, is trying to make it a reality.
It’s not the first time scientists have floated ideas to smother or redirect hurricanes. Billionaire Bill Gates proposed a radical plan to plan to use the ocean’s waves to cool the surface. Another proposal would pump billions of tons of sulfate gas into the upper atmosphere. Another called for using offshore wind farms to slow down storms. And then there was the nuclear bomb proposal.
Some researchers say the Bubble Curtain stands equally little chance of working.
“I hate to be so pessimistic,” said Dr. Berrin Tansel, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at Florida International University. “The technology has a place, but I’m not sure if this is the right place.”
Undeterred, Hollingsaeter and OceanTherm are pressing ahead and seeking $4 million in grants to continue testing the Bubble Curtain, which includes a two-year pilot project in or near the Gulf of Mexico.
"We have had some bad experience with the scientific community in Florida because they are saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t possible because if you go to stop a hurricane, Category 4, right before landfall it’s one thousand miles wide, it’s impossible,’ " Hollingsaeter said.
That’s true, he continued, but the Bubble Curtain isn’t intended to be used against a hurricane. Rather, it would target a weaker tropical storm before it has the chance to intensify into a hurricane.
Here’s how the Bubble Curtain would work:
A “curtain” of perforated, underwater pipes shoot compressed air into the ocean’s depths. When the bubbles rise, they lift cold water to the surface, eliminating the hurricane’s main fuel: warm water.
OceanTherm has plans for a fixed bubble curtain that is secured in the ocean and a mobile bubble curtain that is towed by ships.
The goal is to bring the surface-water temperate — which can get as high as 87 degrees — below 80 degrees. That’s no small feat. To draw up water that’s cold enough to lower the surface temperature so far, the Bubble Curtain’s pipes would have to reach a staggering 400 feet deep, and maybe more.
In one field test that Hollingsaeter and OceanTherm said was a success, the bubble curtain worked at a depth of 164 feet.
OceanTherm said similar technology is being used in Norway’s fjords, a series of lakes formed by glaciers. The bubble curtain, which OceanTherm said is loved by ocean-dwelling creatures, keeps ice from forming on the water’s surface by bubbling warmer, salty sea water to the surface.
But scientists say trying to influence a hurricane in the ocean is much more difficult.
“We have had some bad experience with the scientific community in Florida because they are saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t possible because if you go to stop a hurricane, Category 4, right before landfall it’s one thousand miles wide, it’s impossible,’” Hollingsaeter said. “And we actually agreed. But they will not listen because that is not what we are talking about. As we have explained we are trying to avoid a tropical storm becoming a hurricane, working like a preventive solution.”
OceanTherm said it has already met with a few U.S. companies, including Florida Power & Light, but didn’t provide details of those talks.
“We can’t go on public record about any meetings we’ve had in Florida,” said OceanTherm business developer Oliver Hollingsaeter, Olav’s nephew.
OceanTherm wants to test its bubble curtain in the Florida Straits, the 100-mile stretch between Florida and Cuba, or the Yucatan channel, the 135-mile stretch between Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
In those areas, stronger currents help cool the ocean surface.
“We are using the bubble curtain across currents,” Hollingsaeter said. "So the current is the engine creating the influence area, making a larger influence area from one point. If you cool down the currents running through the Florida Straits then the effect will go further with the currents.”
OceanTherm realizes it can’t stop every tropical storm from becoming a hurricane or reduce the impact of every landfalling-hurricane. And the challenge of bringing up enough cold water to the surface is enormous.
Maybe too enormous to overcome, said Nan Walker, director of Louisiana State University’s Earth Scan Laboratory and a professor of Coastal Studies in the LSU Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences.
Her main field of study is using satellite data to study the ocean and air-sea interactions.
“You bring a little cold water to the surface, the sun is going to counteract that,” she said. “You know how much solar energy the sun puts into the ocean every day? It’s an incredible amount.”
On top of that, Walker said hurricanes, just by their typical churning, already draw cold water from the ocean’s depths to the surface. If they didn’t, she said, they’d be even stronger.
Tansel, the FIU professor, said the Bubble Curtain might be better used to provide oxygen to so-called “dead zones” in the ocean — areas where animals and plants can’t live because oxygen has been depleted by pollution or oil spills. Or, perhaps, it could provide oxygen to areas such as Biscayne Bay, which experienced a massive fish kill in August believed to be caused by sewage and other factors.
“I think that’s probably where they will find their application because there’s a need for that type of thing,” Tansel said.
The fixed Bubble Curtain could cost about $500 million to deploy, according to Oliver Hollingsaeter. The mobile curtain might cost between $100-$300 million a year.
Hurricane Laura, which hit Louisiana in August, is projected to have caused as much as $8-$12 billion in damage.
Oliver Hollingsaeter noted that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency believes every dollar spent on mitigation saves four dollars in storm damage.
“Our system would cost maybe $200 million for one entire hurricane season,” Oliver Hollingsaeter said. “And if we could have prevented just a little bit of Laura’s damages then we would still be way, way beyond that four times factor.”
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