Climate change is making hurricanes more violent, and one of the reasons is that warmer oceans make storms gain more speed: A one-degree rise in the surface temperature of the water can increase wind speed as much as 20 miles an hour. But what if technology could cool the water down? Could it help prevent catastrophes?
That’s the theory behind the still-unproven tech from a Norwegian startup called OceanTherm. In hurricane season, ships would deploy large pipes with holes deep under water, where the water is colder, and then pump in air, which would push cold water bubbles up to the surface. As a storm passed over the cooler water, the change in temperature could prevent a more intense storm.
CEO Olav Hollingsaeter, a retired submarine officer in the Norwegian Navy, started thinking about the concept after seeing the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. That storm gained strength “due to the very hot sea surface temperature before it made landfall,” he says. “I’m an old submariner and knew that the water is colder deeper down in the ocean. So my thought was, Why don’t we use this cold water in the deep sea mixed with the surface water and thereby reduce the sea surface temperature?” In the more recent case of Hurricane Laura, as another example, the storm traveled over water with a surface temperature of 87 degrees. “If you can manage to bring that sea surface temperature below 80 Fahrenheit, then you trip off the energy source for the hurricane,” Hollingsaeter says. “That’s the theory.”
Others have considered similar ideas, including Bill Gates and Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, who filed a patent in 2009 for a system that would both push warm water down from the surface and pull cooler water up (that device doesn’t seem to have moved forward). And many experts are skeptical that the technology will necessarily have its intended effect, in part because of multiple factors that affect how storms grow, not just water temperature. “It’s missing half the problem,” Frank Marks, director of NOAA’s Atlantic Hurricane Research Division, told the Tampa Bay Times when asked about the idea. Changing the ocean temperature at the scale necessary to impact a massive storm could also potentially have unintended consequences, such as causing a drought or another storm elsewhere.
Still, the startup argues that the concept needs more study before it can be dismissed. It plans to begin a two-year pilot with both computer modeling and real-world tests in the Gulf of Mexico. In early tests in cold waters off Norway, the startup demonstrated that it was possible to cool the surface temperature by approximately four degrees Celsius. In Norway, submerged pipes have used bubbles for the opposite purpose for decades—pushing warmer water to the surface to prevent ice.
The pilot will help the company better understand how large this type of system would have to be to work (and what effects it might have on marine life). One version could be permanently installed in a key location, such as between Cuba and Mexico or Cuba and Florida; the startup estimates that it would cost around $500 million to build, and between $80 million to $100 million a year to run. Another version would be mobile, deployed by ships during hurricane season, with lower capital costs but an operating budget of $100 million to $300 million a year. It’s a huge cost, but far lower than the damage that can be wreaked by massive storms. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that hurricane winds, storm surges, and heavy rain cause losses of around $54 billion a year.