P&C Technosavvy the June 2021 issue

Hurricane Helper

Q&A with Olav Hollingsaeter, Founder and CEO, OceanTherm
By Michael Fitzpatrick Posted on June 1, 2021
Hurricanes are massive forces of nature. Can anything man-made really influence them?

There have been earlier ideas, for example Hurricane Slayer from [Stevens Institute of Technology] Professor Alan Blumberg to drop thousands of very long floating pipes in front of a hurricane [to pump up colder water from below]. That was an attempt to influence very strong hurricanes right before they made landfall. That’s very big and difficult.

We are thinking proactively. What if, for example, we can influence a tropical storm coming in, like Hurricane Laura last year. It was a tropical storm when it left Cuba and a Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall in Louisiana. It passed through very warm water and was building up all the way, getting stronger and stronger. Our idea is to influence the storm as early as possible and try to reduce the temperature of the water in the path in front of the tropical storm by using a bubble curtain to mix colder deeper water with warmer surface water to avoid having that develop into a hurricane. That would reduce the impact from both storm surge and wind. If we had managed to do that with Laura, then Laura would have been a tropical storm when it hit Louisiana rather than a Category 4. What we are trying to prove through research and testing is if this is possible to do in a way that does not harm the environment.

Tell us about the bubble curtain technology and how it is being used in Norway.
It is used in Norway to keep fjords from freezing in winter. You can image a very long fjord in Norway where there is a river. All that fresh water coming out from the river into the fjord lies on top of the seawater and freezes very quickly at 0 degrees Celsius. Salt water freezes around minus 2 Celsius. The bubble curtain is used to mix the warmer and saltier water from the deep with the fresh water on top to make a warmer and saltier surface layer. The air bubbles create an upwelling, lifting water from the deep. We have a mixed surface layer, and this is very effective. This helps keep the fjords open in winter. It is also used in harbors for the same purpose.
How can this technology lessen or prevent the damage from hurricanes?

Our idea is to prevent hurricanes from growing. We are talking about avoiding tropical storms becoming hurricanes by influencing the temperature of the water in the area which this tropical storm or weaker hurricane is moving into. Hurricanes need a lot of things to grow. One of the factors is the water has to be above 80 Fahrenheit or 26.5 Celsius. If we can reduce the temperature below that threshold, then there is no energy feed to the tropical storm. It needs this energy to grow. This is the thing we are trying to do. We are not trying to stop the Category 3 or Category 4 hurricane but to avoid smaller storms becoming major hurricanes.

Think about a tropical storm coming into the Gulf of Mexico, like Katrina or Harvey. Katrina was a Category 1 when it went into the Gulf of Mexico and hit the [warm water] Loop Current and, in addition, hit a warm-core eddy. This is very warm water circulating in the Gulf of Mexico. If you look at Katrina, it was kind of exploding when it hit this warm area. The same goes for Hurricane Harvey. Harvey was just a tropical depression when it came to the Yucatan Peninsula. It went into the Gulf of Mexico and hit a very warm area, a warm-core eddy, and it kind of exploded. It went from a tropical depression to Hurricane Harvey in a few hours. So there was no time to evacuate. It caused great damage in the Houston area.

What we are researching is if we can use temperature differences between surface water and deeper water so that we can have more controllable storms in the Gulf Coast. The Gulf Coast is where they are most dangerous because there is a very short time from a tropical storm, or a Category 1 hurricane, if that, to when they become a very major hurricane if they hit warm areas. If we can cool the area if there is a storm coming, we think that can be a good solution.

What do you envision?

We are working with three different concepts. One is to have a fixed installation, like infrastructure ready to be turned on in strategic areas, for example the Florida Straits and some places along the Gulf Coast. Or we can have a permanent installation using oil rigs. There are more than 4,000 oil rigs in the Gulf.

We can also have a fleet of ships moving in areas in front of a tropical system coming in. We can work in front of the path the storm is taking to reduce the water temperature so that the tropical storm will not develop so fast or we can stop it from developing. These systems would have to be managed by the government working with NOAA and other hurricane centers. I don’t think a private company can turn this on or off and decide how it will be used—it has to be managed by a government authority.

There would be a climate footprint from the bubble curtain system and its use of energy, but we need to compare that to the other side, the damage and the pollution from hurricanes and rebuilding and cleanup.
Olav Hollingsaeter, Founder and CEO, OceanTherm
Is this achievable at a large scale, say protecting South Florida or the Texas coast?

Yes. We think so. We have calculated different scenarios. I don’t think the cost will be very high if you are using oil rigs. A fleet of 20 ships would have an operating cost of $100 million to $300 million each year for rental of ships and fuel, compressors and everything. Comparing that to the damage from a major hurricane, that is a low price. We have gas pipes here in Norway delivering gas to England through a 1,200-kilometer pipeline. This is the same kind of pumping system we could use in an installation in the U.S., for instance, if we want to put a bubble curtain between Florida and Cuba.

There are a few steps before we can do that. We have a research plan we are hoping to fund so we can do the necessary environmental and ecosystem studies and the cost/benefit analysis. We are not yet where we can roll this out. We don’t want to damage anything. We want to research the plan to make sure that this is something that can be controlled. We need to build this with the trust of everyone and the government and do it the right way, building it step by step and answering all the questions and all the skeptics.

How about a storm in the New York area, like Sandy?
How can we work with New York? It could be a mix between fixed installations in the ocean outside New York and ships moving in front of Sandy and cooling off the water in front of it. There’s no impact in having a bubble curtain in the inner waters. You have to go out where the water is deep, and you have to go deep to find the water that is cold enough. With a storm like Sandy, you’d have to work with it all the way up the coast.
What are the environmental impacts?
One of the big damages from hurricanes is all the flooding. Afterward all that pollution, all that material, goes back into the sea. And you can think of the climate footprint when you have to clean up and rebuild everything. There would be a climate footprint from the bubble curtain system and its use of energy, but we need to compare that to the other side, the damage and the pollution from hurricanes and rebuilding and cleanup.
Is there an impact on marine life?
We haven’t seen any impact on marine life in Norway because fish can swim right through it. One thing you have to remember is that it wouldn’t be turned on all the time. When a storm is coming, you can use it and turn it off, and things will go back to normal. When you turn the bubble curtain on, it’s not like an explosion. It’s more like bubbles are going out of the pipe. It’s a slow process. Marine life, if they don’t like this, they will avoid it. This all has to be documented, but in Norway it’s not a problem.
What’s next for OceanTherm?
We believe now that we are going to start shortly to develop this research plan with a U.S. university. It’s time to start thinking a little bit more about prevention. Can we do anything to stop storms from growing so strong? It’s like a dollar in prevention saves four dollars in repairs; isn’t that so?
Michael Fitzpatrick Technology Editor Read More

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