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Can We Slow Down a Hurricane?

By Jacob Fisher

Hurricane Harvey has dropped 27 trillion gallons of water over Texas and Louisiana in six days, costing up to 75 billion dollars in losses. Hurricane Irma has cost the US an estimated 70 billion dollars in losses. Hurricanes are terrifying experiences to live through, so it is unsurprising that scientists are coming up with ideas for reducing the effect of hurricanes.


Hurricanes have a vast impact on people’s lives. Mary Lou Kilian has lived in and around Melbourne, Florida since 1977. In 2004, Kilian lived through Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, as well as Hurricane Wilma in 2005. She recounts, “We lived in a condo on the fifth floor on the ocean, right on the ocean. Shutters on the windows and on the balcony railings,” but she still got sand and water in her condo. “After participating in mandatory evacuations a couple of times, I said to my husband ‘I can’t do this anymore’.” She said that, “when you evacuate, you have to decide what to take. ‘Passport, insurance papers, will… things that could not be replaced’”.

To avoid the constant need to evacuate, Kilian and her husband moved from the beach to a location 15 minutes inland to escape the major wrath of the hurricanes. She says, “When we moved to this house and left the beach, we installed, for about $14,000, hurricane shutters.” Hurricane shutters are designed to stand up to over 125 mph winds and protect your home from debris blown by the storm.  

Hurricane shutters protecting these windows during Hurricane Irma.

She recounts her experience from hurricane Irma where she, her husband, and eight other people were barricaded in her home. She says that “the scariest part when you are locked in, think fortress, and particularly if it is nighttime, you cannot see the rain but boy you can hear the wind… There was a terrible noise, all night long, something was bumping up against the window.” It was the hurricane shutters being blown by the 125 mph winds.

Kilian has been lucky that she has never lost any important possessions to a hurricane. However, she says, “A number of older people live in mobile homes, those people lose everything.” Natural disasters hit poor people the hardest, because they can’t afford to barricade their homes, or they are forced to live in mobile homes. For poor people especially, living in a hurricane state makes people very nervous. Kilian says, “The hurricane season is six months long and it goes until the end of November… The whole state goes into an anxiety mode.” With all the destruction and anxiety that these hurricanes cause, many people believe that we need to find some way to mitigate them before global warming builds them into swirling juggernauts of destruction.


Method One: Pumps

Imagine hundreds of rings of tires floating peacefully on a stormy sea, gently bobbing over waves as they crash over the surface of the tires. Long tubes supported by the tires push warm water down to mix with the icy depths of the deep. Designed by Stephen Salter, this  “passive pump” features a ring of tires supporting a 100 meter wide by 200 meter deep plastic tube with a valve that only allows water to flow downwards. The pump is designed to move warm surface water down to mix with the cold waters below, thereby reducing the temperature of the surface by 1-2C°. The idea is to keep the surface temperature of the ocean below 26.5C°, reducing the amount of water that evaporates, thereby reducing the size of hurricanes.

This idea sounds good in theory, but, according to Mr. Brock, engineering teacher at d.tech, there are a number of problems with this idea. Mr. Brock pointed out that if you “disrupt a system…, there are a lot of unintended consequences. … With ocean currents, if you change temperatures of things even a small amount, it can change the entire way the ocean circulates, and that… is what drives a lot of our weather.”  Mr. Brock went on to state, “if you did this water pump thing and it changes the currents, another place may go into a drought that you didn’t expect.” In order to see if these pumps are feasible, extensive modeling of their impact would need to occur.

Mr Brock stated that he would “need to see more accurate models, or more models that could show that this would work.” The ocean is simply too large to manipulate. If we place pumps to attempt to cool the water in the Gulf Coast, we could cause a drought on the other side of the world, or any other myriad of unintended consequences.


Method Two: Unmanned Boats

Another idea by Stephen Salter is an unmanned boat that will spray atomized particles at clouds over locations that are known to spawn hurricanes. The science is that for any two clouds with the same moisture content, the cloud with the smallest particles of water will reflect more light and would cool the water below it. In order to accomplish its task of brightening the clouds, the boat would need to pump water at 30kg/s through a 0.43 micron hole at 1232.82 psi. Mr. Wall, the Physics teacher at d.tech, said that this idea is infeasible. He said that hurricanes are nature’s way of cooling the oceans. Wall mentioned that, “A hurricane is like a chimney. What is does is it takes the energy in the ocean and it moves it into the upper atmosphere where it can radiate into space.” The energy needs to escape somehow. If we interrupt the ocean’s natural cooling process, ocean temperatures will continue to rise and sea levels will rise. Wall mentioned that the device could actually make things worse because “on a cloudy night it stays nice and warm and cozy because water vapor is a greenhouse gas. It actually traps the heat.” He also added that in order “to lift that much water into the air would require the amount of energy of a hurricane.” To produce that much energy is simply not possible let alone on a small unmanned vessel.


The verdict: Hurricanes are simply too large to interrupt. Attempting to cool the temperature of the surface directly is not feasible because placing thousands of pumps would be too expensive and impractical, mess with natural ecosystems, and could cause many unforeseen consequences. Attempting to brighten the clouds by producing thousands of boats that blast atomized particles of water into the air wouldn’t work because it is impossible to produce enough power, the clouds would trap the heat at night thereby warming the oceans, and even if we could slow or prevent hurricanes, the ocean would never be able to cool itself properly so the sea would start rising faster. Attempting to artificially control our natural environment through technology will only cause more harm than good, natural systems are simply too large to manipulate. We can’t mitigate the size of hurricanes, only work to reduce their impact.

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