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With memories of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which ravaged Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico in 2017, still fresh in their minds, residents of the US Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are bracing for yet another busy hurricane season. Researchers at Colorado State University predict a slightly above-average 2018 season with 14 tropical storms, at least three of which are expected to be major hurricanes, Category 3 or higher! Though having the advance warning is helpful, it would be even better if we could find a way to stop the deadly storms from forming altogether. Now, Norwegian researchers may have found the answer in— of all places — air bubbles.
Hurricanes, also known as tropical cyclones or typhoons, are created when cold and hot masses of air collide. However, the key to the deadly storms’ formation is the ocean surface temperatures, which have to reach 79.7 degrees Fahrenheit (26.5 degrees Celsius), or higher, to provide them with energy. In 2005, after seeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, Norwegian researcher Olav Hollingsæter was determined to find a way to cool the water. The scientist said, “The hurricane’s strength was the result of high seawater temperatures, and my first thought was that we should be able to do something about this.”
This is not the first time researchers have tried to come up with ways to cool down ocean temperatures. However, previous ideas, which included transporting icebergs from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico and seeding clouds with salt to make them whiter and more reflective to block the sun’s heat, were not practicable.
On the other hand, Hollingsæter’s suggestion of using air bubbles is easy to implement and extremely effective. Grim Eidnes, a senior research scientist at Scandinavia’s largest research organization SINTEF, said, “During Norwegian winters, sea surface water is colder than at depth, so by lifting warmer water to the surface using bubble curtains, we can prevent the fjords from icing up." The technique has also been used to prevent ocean oil spills from spreading and to control silt in a river in Wales (see video below).
The idea behind the air bubble curtain is simple. Perforated pipes, deployed from offshore oil rigs or directly into the ocean from the shore, are lowered between 100 and 150 meters into the sea. Once the pipes are in place, compressed air is pumped through, forming air bubbles. As the bubbles rise to the surface, they draw up warmer water, or, as will be the case in the Atlantic Ocean, colder water from underneath. According to Eidnes, "By bringing this water to the surface using the bubble curtains, the surface temperature will fall to below 79.7 degrees Fahrenheit ( 26.5 degrees Celsius), thus cutting off the hurricane's energy supply."
While the project, which Hollingsæter is pursuing in partnership with SINTEF, is still in initial stages, the researchers are optimistic. They believe the system, which can be implemented on a large scale, should be tested in the hurricane-prone Yucatan Straits, which connects the Yucatan basin to the Gulf of Mexico. However, not everyone is convinced the air bubble curtain is a good idea. Fox 13 meteorologist Dave Osterberg believes the storms are nature’s way of transferring heat from the equators to the poles, and fears that changing that could alter the Earth’s weather patterns and result in something even more deadly. However, Hollingsæter remains undeterred. The researcher said, “This project is both meaningful and important. I hope and believe that we will succeed.”
Resources: NPR.org, NewAtlas.com, Phys.org