July 13, 2009 -- It's the ultimate man vs. nature face-off.
An application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Jan. 3, 2008, lists Gates and 12 others as the inventors of a number of methods to control and prevent hurricanes.
"Billions of dollars of destruction and damage is regularly attributable to hurricanes and hurricane-like tropical storms," the document says. "Thus, great interest has arisen in controlling these powerful storms."
The document goes on to describe a process of using fleets of vessels to mix warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water from greater depths in an effort to cool the surface of the water.
Hurricanes draw their strength from condensation driven by heat. That condensation leads to higher wind speeds. By cooling the surface of the ocean, the plan attempts to sap energy from growing hurricanes.
The filings were submitted by Searete LLC, a sub-entity of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based invention acquisition and development firm founded by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold.
Patent Submitted by Company Founded by Former Microsoft Exec
She said Intellectual Ventures, which holds about 27,000 patents for technologies spanning multiple industries, didn't expect the patent to be approved for at least another 18 months.
But Gates and his partners are hardly the first to set their sights on the sky.
"Some people sometimes don't have a grasp of the magnitude or the power of hurricanes," said Moshe Alamaro, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The power of a hurricane is at least the power of all the electric power plants in the world combined."
Still, despite the probable impossibility of actually stopping a hurricane, Alamaro doesn't criticize those for trying. (In fact, he has proposed his own plan for taming hurricanes.)
U.S. Government Once Funded Hurricane Modification
"Regardless of if it's going to work or not, at least we need to explore it because in the process of developing this most likely we will develop something else," MIT's Alamaro said.
From the mid-1960s through the early '80s, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) actively pursued hurricane modification through Project STORMFURY.
Its approach involved "seeding" clouds with a substance (silver iodide and dry ice, for example) with a structure similar to that of ice. It was thought that by spreading the ice-inducing substance in the cloud, they could reduce the intensity of the storm.
However, the project ultimately failed. Scientists learned that hurricane systems already include ice crystals, so introducing new ones would have little, if any, effect.
According to NOAA's Web site, "In the absence of a sound hypothesis, no Federal agencies are presently doing, or planning, research on hurricane modification."
But that hasn't stopped other scientists from plotting.
Blowing Up Hurricanes?
Alamaro's plan involved dispersing soot-like nano-particles at the upper layers of a hurricane to increase the temperature at the top of the hurricane. This, he said, would alter the thermodynamics of the hurricane and reduce the storm's intensity.
Others have proposed blowing up a hurricane with hydrogen bombs and blowing storms away from land with windmills.
But Alamaro pointed out that figuring out how to prevent, divert or weaken hurricanes aren't the only problems.
There are about 100 tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean every year and, of those, only about 10 or 11 become hurricanes. Most do not grow to the proportions of a Hurricane Katrina or cause that amount of damage when they hit land.
Those storms and hurricanes, he said, bring crucial rain to central America and the southern part of the U.S.
"What are we going to do, kill every tropical storm? By the time a tropical storm becomes a hurricane, it's difficult to do anything because the power is so immense," he said.
Hugh Willoughby, a research professor in the department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University and former director of NOAA's hurricane division, said the technology to predict when to tackle storms needs refining. He also said the expense and challenges of implementing any plan would be great.
Climatologist: Never Underestimate Mother Nature
"If you could do it, if you could turn the $100 billion hurricane into the $40 billion hurricane [in terms of damage] ... how would you practice? How would you keep it going?" Willoughby wondered. Billions of dollars would be needed with no guarantee of preventing billions more from being spent in the future, he said.
Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said he applauded Gates and Intellectual Ventures for thinking outside the box but warned about unintended consequences.
Messing with oceanic eco-systems is not something to take lightly and comes with its dangers. For example, he said, some have suggested seeding the ocean with iron so that it takes more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere would make the oceans more acidic, which could have adverse affects on marine life.
"This has the same danger," Patzert said. "You have to really think it through."
A better approach to saving lives and money, he suggested, would be to change zoning ordinances along the coast so that fewer homes are in the paths of hurricanes. Making sure that people who live in those areas are familiar with evacuation routes and emergency preparedness plans would help considerably too, he said.
"Never understand the power of Mother Nature and be careful of fiddling," said Patzert. "In the end, Mother Nature always wins."