The company says “bubble curtain” can fight hurricanes


CAPE CORAL, Florida – A Norwegian company says it has a way to stop storms from developing in large hurricanes before they hit the coast – but environmental engineers warn that such a system could have unintended consequences.

OceanTherm says bubble curtain technology could be a way to limit the effects of tropical storms. Olav Hollingsaeter, CEO of OceanTherm, says the disturbing images of Hurricane Katrina made him look for a solution.

“I’ve been thinking about this since Katrina came for Louisiana in 2005,” said Hollingsaeter.

It’s warm water temperatures that fuel storms like Katrina into large hurricanes. With climate change set to cause ocean temperatures to continue to rise in the future, researchers fear that more violent and frequent storms could continue.

The sea surface temperatures of 80 degrees or warmer help to develop and intensify tropical systems. However, OceanTherm believes that bubble curtain technology could help bring these temperatures down.

Their plan is for ships to deploy perforated pipes that release bubbles and push cooler seawater to the surface. That would lower water temperatures and cut off the supply of hot water storms to intensify.

The ultimate goal is to have a system large enough to stretch across the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic. The project is in the early stages of development, but Hollingsaeter said a recent simulation was successful.

“At 100 meters we found water cold enough to drop the surface temperature below 80 degrees,” said Hollingsaeter.

Despite the recent success, funding has been a challenge, Hollingsaeter said. The next steps for the project include a land demonstration and then a sea demonstration, but both are estimated to cost millions of dollars.

“We have the commercial validation, the test at sea, which is priced at $ 14.5 million because that’s a lot of engineering and development work,” said Hollingsaeter.

That might seem expensive, but compare those numbers to the cost of hurricane damage.

The total price for all bubble curtain field tests is $ 17.3 million. According to NOAA, that pales in comparison to the $ 283 billion damage caused by storms in 2017. This year has been dubbed the most expensive hurricane season ever due to storms like Maria, Irma and Harvey.

While Hollingsaeter stated that her researchers found that the bubble curtain would have no long-term effects on ocean currents, environmental engineer and researcher Dr. Tracy Fanara is more concerned about the potential impact on algal blooms in the Gulf.

“If you change one thing, it can have a domino effect,” Fanara said. “With the red tide in Florida, you could force an upwelling event that would cause these cells to come up from the bottom.”

NOAA

This graphic shows how displaced surface water is replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water that “swells” from below. Conditions are optimal for buoyancy along the coast when the wind is blowing along the coast.

Aside from concerns about buoyancy, Fanara pointed out that hurricane season has its advantages. Tropical systems can bring much-needed rain to communities and help replenish dry aquifers.

However, Fanara said these concerns are not necessarily a reason to abandon the project entirely, and there is even a chance the bubble curtain could be applied on a smaller scale.

“Trying to change surface temperatures closer to the coast so we don’t increase that intensity is one thing,” Fanara said. “However, we do not understand the natural process of our earth enough.”

She explained that researchers always learn from experimental projects and can apply their findings to other fields as well.

Even so, Hollingsaeter remains determined to continue the project and prevent hurricanes from causing future destruction. He also mentioned that the company hopes to eventually use bubble curtain technology to restore dying coral reefs.

This story was originally published by Lauren Petrelli on the WFTX Scripps Station in Fort Myers, Florida.

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