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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.

Right.

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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