A start-up hopes to stop hurricanes by blowing bubbles in the ocean © Getty Images

A start-up hopes to stop hurricanes by blowing bubbles in the ocean

Ever used a straw to blow bubbles in your drink? A Norwegian company is scaling up that idea in the hopes of stopping hurricanes in their tracks.

Of the many, serious, problems posed by climate change, rising sea temperatures have the potential to be the most catastrophic. Warmer oceans mean rising sea levels, melting ice caps and more extreme weather events, among them hurricanes.

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But a Norwegian company claims to have a way to mitigate that last one, by blowing bubbles.

OceanTherm, founded by Olav Hollingsæter, a former naval officer, is developing a system that uses bubbles to cool the surface temperature of the sea by drawing up cold water from the oceans’ depths.

Hurricanes are created when hot and cold air meet over warm ocean waters of 26.5°C or above. The warmer the water, the more powerful a hurricane can become. But water below 26.5°C has neither the heat nor sufficient levels of evaporation to feed a hurricane, and so will either reduce its strength (and chances of making landfall) or prevent one forming in the first place.

OceanTherm’s idea is to lower perforated pipes deep into the ocean through which to blow compressed air. The air would create bubbles that would draw cooler water up to the surface and reduce its temperature to below 26.5°C. The pipes would be deployed from a fleet of ships patrolling areas of likely hurricane formation – the Gulf of Mexico, for instance – and create a ‘bubble curtain’ in a hurricane’s path to diminish it, if not snuff it out altogether.

It’s a new application for an old idea – Norway has been using bubble curtains for years to prevent fjords from freezing in the winter (except in this case the bubbles bring warmer water to a surface that’s being chilled by cold winter air).

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OceanTherm’s proposal has yet to be tested on a hurricane and Hollingsæter admits a lot of research and development is needed to make it viable, but there are those who think it’s too tall an order to scale up the tech effectively. “There’s a huge difference between keeping a fjord from icing over and weakening a tropical cyclone with the power of several thousand nuclear bombs and up to a thousand kilometres, or more, across,” says Bill McGuire, Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at University College London.

The practicalities of such a proposition (the number of ships required, getting them to the right place at the right time), not to mention the cost (estimated to be $500m to set-up and over $80m a year to run), would seem to be prohibitive. Although, perhaps less so when weighed against the expected costs of hurricane damage ($54bn annually, according to the US Government’s Congressional Budget Office).

There are cheaper alternatives, however. “The way to mitigate the effects of a landfalling hurricane is via better forecasting, improved land-use planning, more resilient construction, local engineering solutions, and improved alert and evacuation systems. And slashing emissions so that an overheating climate and ocean don’t drive more powerful and wetter storms,” says McGuire.

3 more ideas for high-tech disaster mitigation

Seafloor scanner

Since 2018, a high-tech shallow water buoy developed by geoscientists at the University of South Florida has been floating in the Gulf of Mexico monitoring the seafloor. The device is scanning for tiny movements that indicate an earthquake or tsunami is imminent, which usually requires devices working at much greater depths.

Vibration barriers

Vibration barriers’ to protect old buildings in earthquake zones were proposed by engineers at the University of Brighton in 2015. Essentially a box containing a mass suspended on springs would be sunk into the ground to absorb the seismic waves, reducing their strength and protecting nearby buildings and infrastructure from catastrophic damage.

Snow drift monitoring

After a deadly avalanche in Svalbard in 2015, researchers from Norwegian University of Science and Technology have been installing snowfall and snow pressure measuring instruments to improve avalanche predictions and modelling. The project is intended to investigate the differences between Artic and Alpine avalanches and improve the design and positioning of snow fences.

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