1. Local Weather

Can hurricanes be prevented — with bubbles?

A Norwegian-run company believes they can do it with some investment.

Here’s the dream scenario.

It’s 2023. A tropical storm is hooking up and under the Florida peninsula, scraping Cuba as it pinwheels toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Years ago, this storm would have fed on those warm Gulf waters, intensifying into a deadly Category 3 or 4 hurricane before bashing Texas or Louisiana or curving back toward Florida. Not this time.

A fleet of ships patrolling the Gulf has strategically deployed a gauntlet of giant, perforated pipes releasing a powerful hurricane preventative: bubbles.

The tempest crosses this bubbly Gulf and remains a relatively weak tropical storm, maybe even diminishes a little. It still makes landfall, and that’s no picnic, but lives are saved and millions of dollars in damage is prevented.

That’s the plan, anyway, according OceanTherm founder and CEO Olav Hollingsaeter, who has never shaken the televised images of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. The retired Norwegian Navy submarine officer and his small team are now working to develop a system to cool parts of the ocean to weaken or prevent hurricanes.

OceanTherm CEO Olav Hollingsaeter
OceanTherm CEO Olav Hollingsaeter [ HILDE ORE | Courtesy of OceanTherm ]

“This is a global problem and the poorest people are getting the most damage,” Hollingsaeter said. “That’s what motivates us. We are trying to use the Norwegian knowledge to help.”

The idea can sound simple. Deeper water is colder water. Submerge a pipe, like a giant aquarium bubble stone, into those deep, cold depths. Pump in compressed air. The rising bubbles will draw the colder water upwards, cooling the surface.

If you don’t want to use ships, Hollingsaeter says a pipe could be permanently installed between Florida and Cuba, or across the Yucatan Channel from Cuba to Mexico.

“We have a pipeline underwater that pumps gas from Norway to England,” he said. “If we can do that, we can do this.”

Some scientists write this plan off as just one more far-fetched idea in the arena of weather modification, destined to be filed alongside all the other half-baked suggestions the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has fielded over the years. (Yes, they have an actual file, one scientist there told the Tampa Bay Times.)

Frank Marks, director of NOAA’s Atlantic Hurricane Research Division, said plans to cool the ocean’s surface fail to recognize the ocean is only part of a complex hurricane-forming equation that also involves the atmosphere above.

”It’s missing half the problem,” he said.

Marks has heard all the ideas, by the way: dragging icebergs into the Gulf, purposely creating oil slicks in a storm’s path, using 747 Supertankers to dump liquid nitrogen on a hurricane from above, giant fans to blow a hurricane away. The U.S. government actually tried seeding hurricanes with dry ice or silver iodide for decades. The results were inconclusive.

He always politely listens to such ideas because he knows they come from a place of empathy and wanting to help.

Once, during “I think it was Katrina or Rita,” Marks said he got a call from an Air Force colonel saying “I’ve got these nuclear bombs, where can I put them?” (A nuke, Marks said, would be nothing but a mild “hiccup” for a hurricane.)

Allison Wing, an atmospheric scientist at Florida State University, said that cooling a large enough swath of ocean to suppress a 300-mile-wide hurricane, if it’s even possible, could have unintended consequences. Maybe drought, or hurricanes forming elsewhere.

“There certainly have been legitimate research efforts into this, and I think it’s always worth thinking of ideas,” she said. “But you have to really carefully think through the morality of changing the weather in one place and how that would affect others.”

OceanTherm’s chief scientific officer Grim Eidnes, a former senior research scientist at SINTEF Oceans, said the company will answer all those impact questions in the next step: a two-year pilot program he has designed that will combine computer modeling and real-world trials in Gulf waters.

Drone images from an OceanTherm field test in Trondheim, Norway in August 2019. A bubble curtain was placed 160 feet deep, reducing the surface temperature from 54 to 49 degrees.
Drone images from an OceanTherm field test in Trondheim, Norway in August 2019. A bubble curtain was placed 160 feet deep, reducing the surface temperature from 54 to 49 degrees. [ Courtesy of OceanTherm ]

Another skeptic said the awesome power and magnitude of hurricanes was simply too much for current human technology to overcome. The heat energy released around the eye of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, for instance, “was 5,000 times the combined heat and electrical power generation of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant over which It passed,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.

“Perhaps,” he said, “if the time comes when men and women can travel at nearly the speed of light to the stars, we will then have enough energy for brute-force intervention in hurricane dynamics.”

The OceanTherm team says they’ve heard it all, and their idea is simply better.

And there have been respected minds who’ve proposed cooling the ocean. About a decade ago, Bill Gates and climate scientist Ken Caldeira at Stanford University were among those who filed a patent for free floating pumps that could force cooler water to the surface, although nothing has come of it.

OceanTherm said in a statement that it’s undertaking a publicity campaign “to attract visionary partners with financial, scientific, political, and operative resources to join us in building a pilot project to prove the solution at scale. ... Imagine the upside.”

You might not expect a group of guys from the land of viking blood and frozen fjords to be drawn to working on tropical storm systems, but they say it was Norwegian technology that inspired them.

In Norway, underwater pipes spewing bubbles have been used in harbors and fjords for decades for the opposite reason. They send warmer water up to the colder surface to prevent ice.

“They’ve been in operation 50 years,” Hollingsaeter said.

A bubble curtain keeps a fjord free of ice during the winter in Holandsfjorden, Norway.
A bubble curtain keeps a fjord free of ice during the winter in Holandsfjorden, Norway. [ SINTEF courtesy of OceanTherm ]

The team is now working to secure the $4 million in funding the pilot project will cost.

The OceanTherm team has visited Florida twice and Texas once. Hollingsaeter said they’d met with “politicians and business people” while in the U.S.

Oliver Hollingsæter, a business developer for OceanTherm, said they’d met with the “innovation team” from NextEra Energy Inc., parent company of Florida Power & Light, and leaders from the Port of Galveston in Galveston, Texas, for “initial conversations about what we’re doing, and potentially working together.”

“We did design two research projects that could be undertaken in partnership with those two,” Oliver Hollingsæter said. “They had to be put on ice due to COVID, but we’re still keeping those conversations going.”

The company said it also met with Ryan Hnatiuk, an outreach director for Sen. Rick Scott, and had a “fruitful discussion,” though the process stopped when the pandemic forced OceanTherm to recall it’s lone U.S.-based employee back to Norway.

OceanTherm projects a cost of $550 million to install a permanent system, such as one running from Mexico to Cuba. They believe a mobile system relying on ships would cost $100 million to $300 million a year.

They imagine it could be paid for via a public-private partnership, with OceanTherm building it with funding through its partners and investors, and governments paying millions annually after it’s deployed.

“It’s going to be the same amount of tax money spent,” Oliver Hollingsæter said, “just put into prevention rather than restoration.”