When Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida on Wednesday, it raged through the state with a ferocity that surprised even weather experts. The Category 4 storm flooded cities, wiped out power for millions of people, and the death toll could rise into the hundreds. Since then, Ian has since been downgraded to a tropical storm before bouncing back to a Category 1 hurricane so the danger remains—and will remain for the next week.
The last few days have been a sobering reminder of the power that hurricanes have, and what little we can do when they arrive. Moreover, Ian is yet another indication of the deadly forces we’ve come to reap from runaway climate change, and an example of the grim reality we’re only beginning to grapple with as a society: It only gets worse from here.
After all, the reason that hurricanes and tropical storms are becoming deadlier and deadlier is due to rising ocean temperatures, which is directly caused by anthropogenic climate change. Short of the world’s nations getting together to help reverse this trend (and we all know that’s not happening soon), things are looking dire. But there’s some hope—and it comes in the way of solutions that can only be described as Looney Toons-esque.
Enter geoengineering, a term used to describe the technologies and strategies to artificially cool the world’s climate through what is essentially environment hacking. Researchers have proposed many different approaches over the decades, but the most common involves “marine cloud brightening,” a process where fine aerosols are sprayed into the air, which then reflect sunlight away from Earth and lead to cooling temperatures for the rest of the planet.
“Sea surface temperatures are what drives hurricanes, and I want to put them back to where they used to be or perhaps to even more favorable ones that experts advise,” Stephen Salter, a marine engineer at the University of Edinburgh, told The Daily Beast. Salter is one of the world’s foremost marine engineers and one of the loudest proponents of geoengineering. He was one of the first researchers to propose marine cloud brightening as a tactic to cool global temperatures.
Over the course of his career, he’s invented numerous concepts and devices in order to solve some of the most pressing climate issues of our time. Perhaps his most famous is a machine known as “Salter’s duck.” The device was created during the 1970s energy crisis, and was supposedly capable of converting ocean waves into usable electricity. But after oil prices bounced back in the 1980s, his funding was cut and the device never saw large-scale use.
This wouldn’t be his only potentially game changing innovation to fall on deaf ears either. Salter later devised a machine in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2007 that he believed could weaken or even stop tropical storms and hurricanes. Dubbed the “Salter Sink,” it would be a series of tubes buoyed with recycled tires that would essentially funnel the warm surface level seawater down while drawing cold deep ocean water up where it could cool surface temperatures. The idea is that, with cooler water, storms would have less warm fuel to draw their strength from. Salter once described it as: “Like a siphon, exploiting gravity to create a ‘drain’ through which warm surface water flows.”
The Salter Sink drew plenty of interest from climate change innovators—Bill Gates even joined forces with Salter to patent the idea more than a decade ago. Atmocean, a marine engineering startup based in New Mexico., even proposed their own variation of the device that drew water up instead of funneling it down.
However, as with his previous invention, the Salter Sink fizzled out like a tropical storm hitting cool waters. There hasn’t been any real progress in turning this machine into a practical, hurricane-fighting tool. Atmocean has also quietly transitioned away from geoengineering solutions in order to focus on wave energy technology—though an old web page outlining their ocean pump design still remains. (Atmocean did not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions.)
But there are still geoengineering projects being researched and developed focused on stopping hurricanes today. Norway-based marine engineering startup OceanTherm hopes to employ an even more eyebrow-raising solution to cool sea temperatures: bubble curtains.
This would be a system of perforated pipes lowered deep into the ocean. Air would then be pumped through the pipes, creating bubbles. As the bubbles make their way to the surface, they would draw the cold water up.
The idea is that if you attach the system to a boat, you could tug it through the ocean ahead of a potential hurricane or tropical storm to create a curtain of cool ocean water. Once the storm meets the curtain, it would—in theory—lose its strength.
“Our concept focuses on reducing the energy available for the hurricane to maintain or grow in intensity,” Olav Hollingstaeter, the founder and CEO of OceanTherm, told The Daily Beast.
The company conducted a research project in 2021 that was supported by the Norwegian government. Using computer modeling, Hollingstaeter claims that they were able to show that the bubble curtain method “is achievable at the scale necessary to prevent tropical storms from developing into devastating levels.
“OceanTherm believes strongly in preventive thinking, both in terms of technological and economical feasibility,” he added. “It will be easier to stop a tropical storm from growing than weakening a major tropical cyclone.”
A Dose of Reality
A hurricane-killing machine would be one of the most important tools ever invented. But are bubble curtains or giant funnels really just pie-in-the-sky moonshots by eccentric scientists with too much time on their hands? Could these contraptions actually work?
“In principle, yes,” Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane researcher at MIT, told The Daily Beast. “Hurricanes naturally churn up cold water from deeper in the ocean, and we know that that reduces their wind speeds. The real question is whether it is economically feasible.”
Emanuel co-authored a 2011 paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that calculated the cost savings of deploying a water-pump system like the one proposed by Atmocean. The authors found that if the pump was launched ahead of a hurricane season, it would drastically lessen the damage of a hurricane. In fact, they found that the cost savings alone would more than make up for the deployment of the pumps.
So, it could work and there’s evidence that shows that it could save lives and money. So why don’t we start geoengineering?
“Geoengineering solutions have not been adopted because the funding has been zero due to the criminal stupidity of decision makers.”
— Stephen Salter
Salter laments that even though there’s research to suggest that these innovations do indeed work, the powers that be aren’t going to roll the dice on them. He continues to be frustrated by the lack of funding or even serious interest in these technologies from the rest of the scientific community—despite the urgency posed by climate disaster.
Salter doesn’t hold his disdain back. “Geoengineering solutions have not been adopted because the funding has been zero due to the criminal stupidity of decision makers,” he said, referring specifically to the U.K. government’s objections to using marine cloud brightening as a method to prevent temperature rise in 2005. “All we should try is to aim for patterns of sea surface temperatures proposed by governments of hurricane damaged countries.”
In order to employ solutions like bubble curtains, the Salter Sink, or a water pump, they would also need to be scaled up large enough to cover a massive region of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast. That would require hundreds of millions of dollars—money that even investors with the deepest pockets wouldn’t be comfortable ponying up on experimental and largely untested technology.
On top of all this, there are the environmental concerns. What if these solutions end up doing more harm than good to the ecosystems and environment it’s supposed to help? Some experts fear that cooling the Earth using methods like marine cloud brightening could actually lead to an inadvertent drop in temperatures in ecosystems that can’t handle the cold. This might result in crop failure and eventual famine.
Salter balks at that idea. “The amount of sea salt we put into the atmosphere [for Marine Cloud Brightening] is a tiny fraction of what is already being thrown up by breaking waves,” he said. “[Hurricane] Ian has already lofted more salt than a thousand spray vessels would do in a year. We can stop spraying with one mouse click and the effects will be gone at the next rain shower.”
Even the folks at OceanTherm acknowledge that geoengineering isn’t a permanent fix. “We do not consider this a method to limit or reduce the climate crisis,” Grim Eidnes, the chief scientific officer of OceanTherm, told The Daily Beast, “although we can see positive consequences of a temporary cooling of the sea surface.”
And therein lies one of the biggest issues that critics have with geoengineering solutions: They’re not really doing anything to stop and reverse the root climate changes that are leading to more severe hurricanes and tropical storms. At best, geoengineering is a Band-Aid solution that, admittedly, could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in property damage. But it won’t be the tool that eliminates carbon emissions and gives the planet a chance to cool down again. At worst, geoengineering could even exacerbate things by causing us to outright ignore the greenhouse gas conundrum.
That’s likely little comfort to anyone who finds themselves caught by severe storms and floods these days. If we know how to stop these deadly hurricanes from occurring, or at least diminish their effects, why haven’t we done so already? Each storm means another flooded home, another community rent asunder, and another set of victims injured or even killed. Preventing storms like Ian might mean finally taking the “pie-in-the-sky” ideas seriously.
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