Bill Gates: Hurricane Killer?

Bill Gates: Hurricane Killer?

It may sound like the twisted plot of a comic book or the ramblings of a James Bond villain, but this week’s oddest tech story is based on a patent filed by Bill Gates himself — controlling the weather. Bill Gates and a litany of other inventors have come together to form a plan to “kill hurricanes” while they’re over open ocean and before they can hit land and wreak havoc.

Gates’ idea sounds simple enough — send barges to pull cold deep ocean water up to the surace to create a virtual road block that will weaken or even dissipate the savage forces of hurriances. Why would this work? Hurricanes, as you may remember from sixth grade science class, get their power from warm ocean waters — so cooling the water around and in front of a hurricane, theoretically, should lessen the power of that tropical storm, and potentially make it go away for good.


Five U.S. Patent and Trade Office applications, which were made public this July 9, indicate that Gates’ plan is to slow hurricanes by pumping that cold water directly in their paths, using giant barges. If the patents are issued (or “legally recognized”), Gates and his co inventors would enjoy 18 years of legal rights to the unique hurricane killing idea. This isn’t exactly pseudo science — one of Gates co inventors is the venerable climate scientist (and sometime environmental activist) Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

A hurricanes power is easy to see — just look at the deadly intensity of Hurricanes Katrina or Rita, which wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast in 2005 and 2006. The patents described by Gates and his group indicate that a strategic positioning of barges with turbine engines would use various methods to chill sea surfaces. This isn’t exactly a new idea for Gates — the idea was first floated by the software magnate sometime last year — and would use “atmospheric management, weather management, hurricane suppression, hurricane prevention, hurricane intensity modulation, and hurricane deflection” to prevent future disasters like the one that nearly wiped out New Orleans.

According to various patent experts, the scope of this hurriance stomping idea is so large that the patents may sit in patent hell for years. An issue this complex isn’t going to be rushed through the patent office. Scanning the web for various news sources on the issue, it is clear that no one associated with Gates or Ken Caldeira are willing to release a statement. Specifically, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Institution have declined to make any comment on the patent plans.

An interesting name is being floated for the venture — Big Hurricane Suck. Before you go making jokes about what a great band name that would be, understand that Gates and his co inventors are quite serious about the idea. In fact, the idea is being worked on through Microsoft’s Intellectual Ventures Lab, a think tank founded by former Microsoft executives (like Gates) to think up and develop new technologies to benefit humanity. According to Intellectual Ventures Lab, the Big Hurricane Suck isn’t a “Plan A or Plan B scenario”, but more like a last ditch effort in the face of a deadly hurriance. Writing in Intellectual Ventures Lab blog, a co inventor of the patent says that “Big Hurricane Suck would be used when humans decide that we have exhausted all of our behavior changing and alternative energy options and need to rely on mitigation technologies.”

Hurricane experts aren’t giggling at this idea — in fact, Kerry Emanuel of the Massacusetts Institute of Technology (who is a hurricane expert) had this to say — “The bottom line here is that if enough pumps are deployed, it is reasonable to expect some diminution of hurricane power.” According to Emanuel, lowering the sea surface temperature by as little as 4.5 degrees directly under the eye of a hurricane would literally kill the storm. The one downside to Gates’ plan, according to Emanuel, is that Big Hurricane Suck would have to be performed on a “massive scale”. Who knows how many turbine powered barges would have to be employed — but at least the plan is feasible.

The technology is built around the concept that ocean water gets colder and colder the deeper you go, even reaching below freezing temperatures of 28 degrees as little as 500 feet below the surface. Remember that salty water won’t freeze at the traditional 32 degrees.

The patents specifically mention sail powered barges, with pumps as long as 500 feet, moving warm water down to the depths and bringing cold water back up. If you cool the water in a region that is in the known path of a hurricane (according to the patent, this would mean about 60 square miles of ocean), the hurricane could be slowed by a category of wind speed per 60 square miles. Unfortunately, according to computer modeling included in the patent application, the path of the hurricane won’t be directly affected, just the strength.

So why are hurricanes such a problem? The National Weather Service tells us that in an average storm year, six major hurricanes will develop in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico between June 1st and November 30th. Looking back over the last 100 years, the annual cost in damages to the USA averages $10 billion, which may sound like a lot until you learn the impact of individual storms. Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed around 2,000 people and caused more than $81 billion in damages — and that’s a single storm.

Will Bill Gates soon be known as the man that killed hurricanes? If he has his way, and if Big Hurricane Suck can be implemented, that may be his biggest legacy.