Bill Gates Seeks Patent on Hurricane Prevention

William H. Gates, III, of Redmond, Washington (US) is known to most throughout the world as Bill Gates, the genius behind Microsoft Corporation.  Gates is presently the Chairman of Microsoft, having transitioned out of the day-to-day leadership role on June 27, 2008, a role that allows him an opportunity to spend more time on health and education work sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Prior to stepping away from the daily grind, however, Gates managed to find time on January 3, 2008, to file some five patent applications directed to methods and systems for altering the temperature of surface water.  The goal of these inventions is to prevent or at least lessen the force of hurricanes, the fierce storms that form as a result of warm water (among other things) and gain strength from warm water.  While there are many ideas and associated solutions in the various patent applications, the primary thrust of the patent application seems to be the churning of cold water from deep below the surface to mix with warmer surface water.  The process is carried out by one or more vessels, and the hope is that using cold water from the depths of the sea hurricane intensity could be minimized, potentially saving millions (or billions) of dollars and lives.

The various patent applications, all filed on January 3, 2008, by Bill Gates and a team of other inventors, which includes Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myhrvold, include:

  1. US Patent Application No. 20090177569, titled: “Water alteration structure risk management or ecological alteration management systems and methods”
  2. US Patent Application No. 20090175685, titled: “Water alteration structure movement method and system”
  3. US Patent Application No. 20090173801, titled: “Water alteration structure and system having below surface valves or wave reflectors”
  4. US Patent Application No. 20090173404, titled: “Water alteration structure and system”
  5. US Patent Application No. 20090173386, titled: “Water alteration structure applications and methods”

These patent applications will no doubt be held up to ridicule in some corners.  The magnitude of effort that would be necessary to alter the surface temperature enough to make a difference would be staggering, given the sheer size of hurricanes, which can be as large as 600 miles across, and the volume of water involved with such an undertaking.  Yet, hurricanes do billions of dollars of damage every year, so it is indeed understandable why inventors, including Bill Gates, are keenly interested in controlling these powerful storms.

According to these patent applications, which all seem to share a common specification but boast different claims:

It is well known that a hurricane’s primary energy source is the release of the heat of condensation of water vapor condensing at high altitudes, with solar-derived heat being the initial source for evaporation. Therefore, a hurricane may be seen as a giant vertical heat engine, albeit one dependent upon mass supplied by largely horizontal flows. Water condensation leads to higher wind speeds, as a fraction of the released energy is converted immediately into thermal energy and thence into mechanical energy, the faster winds and lower pressures associated with them in turn cause increased surface evaporation and thus even more subsequent condensation. Much of the released energy drives updrafts that increase the height of speeding up condensation. This gives rise to factors that provide the system with enough energy to be self-sustaining, and result in a positive feedback loop that continues as long as the tropical cyclone can draw energy from a thermal reservoir and isn’t excessively sheared along its vertical extent. In this case, the heat source is the warm water at the surface of the ocean. Without this thermal reservoir to support it a hurricane or other similar storm will not commence, will be weaker, or will die out as the positive feedback loop diminishes to sub-threshold levels or never gets above them.

 

According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), low sea surface temperatures can spell death for a hurricane, as happened in 1998 when the cold water Hurricane Bonnie left in its wake caused Hurricane Danielle, which was following close behind, to dissipate.  See What Lies Beneath a Hurricane.  Thus, there is reason to suspect that a significant amount of cold water could cause a hurricane to dissipate.  Therefore, it seems logical to attempt to create a man-made wake of cold water.

There seems to be two primary methods discussed in the patent applications.  First, the lower depths of the ocean may be used as a huge heat/energy sink.  In this method warm ocean surface water is pushed in a downward direction to exit into the cold ocean depths, operating in a continuous cycle.  Second, while the primary conduit pushes water down, in an alternative version a secondary conduit may be used to bring cold water to the surface to aid in cooling the warm surface water regions by mixing of subsurface water with surface water.

The patent applications also explain that due to the wind and waves the temperature of ocean water may be relatively uniform up to several hundred feet below the surface, but below that the temperature begins to drop rapidly.

In most circumstances, most of the sunlight impinging on the ocean surface is absorbed in the surface layer. The surface layer therefore heats up. Wind and waves move water in this surface layer which distributes heat within it. The temperature may therefore be reasonably uniform to depths extending a few hundred feet down from the ocean surface. Below this mixed layer, however, the temperature decreases rapidly with depth, for example, as much as 20 degrees Celsius with an additional 150 m (500 ft) of depth. This area of rapid transition is called the thermocline. Below it, the temperature continues to decrease with depth, but far more gradually. In the Earth’s oceans, approximately 90% of the mass of water is below the thermocline. This deep ocean consists of layers of substantially equal density, being poorly mixed, and may be as cold as ?2 to 3° C.

While the magnitude of the effort might be considerable, perhaps even to the point that it may never become feasible, the physics involved are plausible, and looking at the heat graph above showing how Danielle never materialized it does not seem as if there is a large temperature difference required.  Perhaps it is unrealistic to think that anything man made could dissipate a hurricane, but perhaps lessening hurricanes is far more possible.  Given the harm caused by hurricanes, there will no doubt be some who continue to follow this and other paths in an effort to control their deadly and damaging affects.