CAPE CORAL, Fla.-- — Imagine if we could stop tropical systems from ever developing into major hurricanes. It may sound like wishful thinking, but one company believes they may have the solution.
OceanTherm, a company based in Norway, has been looking at bubble curtain technology to combat this very issue. People have watched helplessly as hurricanes wreak havoc across the United States for decades. It was actually the disturbing images from Hurricane Katrina that pushed OceanTherm's Chief Executive Officer Olav Hollingsaeter to find a solution.
"I've been thinking about this since 2005 when Katrina came for Louisiana," said Hollingsaeter.
Researchers found warm sea surface temperatures helped fuel Katrina into a major hurricane. Warmer sea surface temperatures are something researchers have been studying in-depth because they fear more intense and frequent storms could keep happening as those temperatures consistently increase each year.
Sea surface temperatures that are at 80° or higher help fuel tropical systems to develop and intensify. However, OceanTherm believes bubble curtain technology could help lower those temperatures. Their plan involves ships deploying perforated pipes that release bubbles pushing cooler ocean water up to the surface. This would cut off the warm water storms need to intensify.
The goal is to eventually have a system big enough to stretch across the Gulf of Mexico or even the Atlantic. The project is in its early stages of development, but Olav Hollingsaeter said a recent simulation was successful.
"In 100 meters, we found waters cold enough to reduce the surface temperature below 80 degrees," said Hollingsaeter.
Even with the recent success, Olav said gathering funding has been a challenge. The next steps for the project involve a land demonstration and then a sea-based demonstration, but both are estimated to cost millions of dollars.
"We have the commercial validation, which is the sea-based test, which has a price tag of 14.5 million dollars because that's a lot of engineering and development."
That may seem pricey, but you can put those numbers into better perspective when you compare them to hurricane damage costs. The total price for all the field tests comes in at $17.3 million. That pales in comparison to the $283 billion dollars in damage caused by storms in 2017, according to NOAA. That year was named the costliest hurricane season on record due to storms such as Maria, Irma, and Harvey.
It’s not the first time scientists have floated ideas for hurricane prevention so we asked Environmental Engineer and Research Scientist Dr. Tracy Fanara how she felt about this project. While Hollingsaeter explained their researchers found the bubble curtain wouldn't have any long-term impacts on ocean currents, Dr. Fanara was more concerned about potential impacts on algal blooms in the Gulf.
"When you change one thing there is a domino effect of things that can occur," said Dr. Fanara. "With Florida red tide, you could be forcing an upwelling event that causes those cells to come from the bottom to up top."
Aside from upwelling concerns, Dr. Fanara pointed out there are benefits to hurricane season. Tropical systems can bring much-needed rainfall to communities and help replenish dry aquifers. However, Dr. Fanara said those concerns aren't necessarily a reason to ditch the project altogether, and there's even a possibility the bubble curtain could be applied on a smaller scale.
"Trying to change the surface temps closer to shore so we won't have that increase in intensity is one thing," said Dr. Fanara. "However, impending on our earth's natural process is just something we don't understand enough."
She explained researchers can always learn from experimental projects like this and apply their findings to other fields down the road too. Nevertheless, Hollingsaeter remains determined to continue with the project and stopping these storms from causing future destruction. He also mentioned the company hopes to eventually use the bubble curtain technology to restore dying coral reefs.