Freakonomics: Preventing a hurricane

Raging waves batter against the shore in the seafront in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on August 23, 2011, after the passage of Hurricane Irene.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name, it is the hidden side of everything. Dubner, good to talk to you.

Stephen Dubner: Hey Kai, it's good to be talked to.

Ryssdal: I'll be gentle, don't worry.

Dubner: So we are just recovering here from Hurricane Irene on the East Coast. And it got the attention of a lot of people who don't normally pay attention to hurricanes, let me tell you. One thing that struck me is that when it comes to hurricanes, all we really know how to do, even after all these years, is deal with the symptoms. We don't actually have a way to treat the disease itself.

Ryssdal: So are you going to have a hurricane vaccine, is that where the hidden side of this conversation is going?

Dubner: It's exactly where we're going. I talked to Nathan Myhrvold, who's the CEO of the invention firm Intellectual Ventures. His company has a possible solution.

Nathan Myhrvold: We've come up with a way of either reducing the strength of hurricanes or preventing them altogether. And it has the advantage that it's both cheap and entirely passive.

So as Myhrvold explains it, hurricanes form when the surface water in the ocean gets heated up during the summer and creates a lot of thermal energy. Meanwhile, there's tons of cool water that could displace all that thermal energy, sitting just a couple hundred feet down.

Myhrvold: Now the way it works is that you have to stir the ocean.


Ryssdal: What could possibly go wrong?

Dubner: Exactly. Now you could have some giant egg beaters on the bottom of military helicopters that probably won't work. But their idea is much simpler: it's called the Salter Sink, named for a scientist in Scotland named Steven Salter. And it's really just a big float, a big floating ring or a series of these big floats that you drop into the ocean.

Ryssdal: How does it work? Help me out here, I'm not conceptualizing.

Dubner: All right. So picture like a kind of big plastic jellyfish. You've got a floating ring, maybe 100 feet across, and it's got a big plastic sleeve attached to the ring that goes down into the water. Now, as waves crash over the top of this floating ring, that would push the warm surface water down the sleeve, which would churn the cold water up to the surface. So if you put a fleet of these things out in parts of the oceans where hurricanes do form, you could rob those hurricanes of their thermal energy.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I'm going back to my previous statement, which is what could possibly go wrong with this? But also, I mean, come on, it's A) impractical, and B) it's got to be expensive.

Dubner: It sounds very expensive until you compare it to the cost of dealing hurricanes. Here's Myhrvold again.

Myhrvold: Our rough estimates are it would take on the order of 10,000 of these devices, which opts to be possible to construct for a few thousand dollars apiece. Even if it was tens of millions of dollars per year, that is a drop in the bucket compared to what even one of these hurricanes, the property damage that it causes.

And that's property damage, Kai, of course, to say nothing of loss of life, which is very substantial.

Ryssdal: Yeah, fair point. Let me just ask you though: It can't be all upside, right?

Dubner: Well the first thought would be environmental concerns, but those actually appear pretty benign when you look it through. Myhrvold has actually identified a different kind of problem.

Myhrvold: You could argue that one of the downsides is that it would allow people to keep building things in the seashore. Now, they seem to be doing that perfectly well without having any hurricane prevention, so I think the horse may be out of the barn in that particular case.

Ryssdal: And that's what I'm saying: it's moral hazard, right? It's like the financial crisis all over again: big banks, bailout, people building houses by the seashore, all that good stuff.

Dubner: There you go. The hurricane bailout. Now believe it or not, the biggest obstacle to trying this out, however, may be simply figuring out, you know, who's going to pay for it.

Ryssdal: I have the answer to that one: Nathan Myhrvold was a Microsoft guy, right? He's a bajillionaire, no?

Dubner: Yes, and he's got all those cookbook profits rolling in now too.

Ryssdal: Stephen Dubner, FreakonomicsRadio.com. We'll see you in a couple of weeks, man.

Dubner: Thanks Kai.

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I was appalled when I heard this story. Economically this might help our country in the short term, but the long-term (maybe not so long-term) consequences would very costly. I remember listening to a podcast of the British Science program �The Naked Scientist�. (http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/content/latest-questions/question...) They discussed the impacts of stopping hurricanes. Here is part of the transcript: Ben - Not to mention the fact that the temperature structure of the oceans are actually incredibly important for the currents, and things like what we call the conveyor system that moves warm and cold water around the world. Dave - If you're not careful, you�d end up freezing Northern Europe where we are because you might break the north Atlantic conveyor, the gulf stream. Ben - That�s another reason why this is unethical and legal minefield. Not only could you send a hurricane into somebody but you could also freeze England by accident.

I am reminded of the Mencken quote "for every problem, there is a solution that is simple, clean, and wrong." As a meteorologist, I agree with Robert Hinkle that implementing this scheme would mess up ocean currents in a big way that would be impossible to predict. More predictably, within a few years, you'd have warm water capable of supporting a huge hurricane, only several hundred feet deeper than it used to be. What then, sue Myhrvold?

As a biologist who works in coastal ecosystems I was appalled to hear that according to freakonomics the impacts on the environment from altering hurricane intensity appear to be "benign". I think a good journalist would consult a marine biologist on the effects of artificial upwelling on plankton and other marine organisms before making that claim. Disturbances such as hurricanes are part of a natural cycle. Hurricanes are beneficial to certain coastal species such as shorebirds. It helps to reduce populations of predators and increase the amount of suitable nesting sites. Please do not broadcast statements such as this one without checking your facts first. It is extremely damaging to your credibility and to our country's general understanding of natural ecosystems.

You know, now that I think about it, this piece now kind of ticks me off for another reason: here is yet another unqualified economist making some assessment about environmental impact. Economists are not qualified to state what the impact to the environment a particular action might be, and neither are former Microsoft execs. "Appears to be benign" is a ridiculous assessment when there is actually no study done, and certainly in the absence of long-term study on the subject. Economists posing as authorities on subjects for which they have no authority are reasons why we're engaged in non-sensical activities like a "debate" about climate change, when the climate science community is overwhelmingly in agreement (much to the chagrin of Rick Perry) about the fact that CO2 emissions are having an effect on our climate.

This story makes me grateful that neither Steven Dubner nor Nathan Myrvold are actually able to make decisions of consequence. The environmental consequences of this "appear pretty benign"?! Are you kidding?! You are only going to affect the entire ecosystem in the Gulf! Also, more people building beach houses is a bigger downside than the environment? This one was more "freak" than economics.

If enough of these devices were put it place to decrease hurricanes and effectively change the entire weather patterns on the East Coast of America, it would also completely disrupt the equatorial current, Gulf stream and North Atlantic drift. This drastic change would also likely completely change weather in Western Europe, Iceland and Scandinavian countries. Atmospheric temperatures in the U.K. and Western Europe might well drop by a number of degrees C leading to severe, unintended consequences. Further, even those changes would probably affect the entire world's ocean currents.

Please stop indulging Nathan Myhrvold. Just because he is rich, doesn't make this idea any less ridiculous.

Robbie Clark is actually right on the mark. There's no way my comment and explanation will fit in 150 words, so I have posted it here on my personal web space. Pardon the crude coding, but its legible.
Here's the link:


Really? You want more human efforts to change the climate?


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