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Company says 'bubble curtain' technology can combat major hurricanes

Environmentalists warn of unintended consequences
Posted at 8:53 AM, Sep 14, 2021

CAPE CORAL, Fla. — A Norwegian company says it has a way to stop storms from developing in major hurricanes before they reach shorelines — but environmental engineers warn such a system could have unintended consequences.

OceanTherm says bubble curtain technology could be a way to limit the impacts of tropical storms. OceanTherm CEO Olav Hollingsaeter says the disturbing images from Hurricane Katrina led him to seek a solution.

"I've been thinking about this since 2005 when Katrina came for Louisiana," Hollingsaeter said.

It's warm water temperatures that fuel storms like Katrina into major hurricanes. With climate change slated to cause sea temperatures to continue to rise in the future, researchers fear more intense and frequent storms could keep happening.

Sea surface temperatures that are at 80 degrees or warmer help fuel tropical systems to develop and intensify. However, OceanTherm believes bubble curtain technology could help lower those temperatures.

Their plan involves ships deploying perforated pipes that release bubbles, pushing cooler ocean water up to the surface. That would lower water temperatures and cut off the supply of warm water storms need to intensify.

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

"In 100 meters, we found waters cold enough to reduce the surface temperature below 80 degrees," Hollingsaeter said.

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

"We have the commercial validation, which is the sea-based test, which has a price tag of $14.5 million because that's a lot of engineering and development," Hollingsaeter said.

That may seem pricey, but compare those numbers to hurricane damage costs.

The total price for all the bubble curtains field tests comes in at $17.3 million. According to NOAA, that pales in comparison to the $283 billion dollars in damage caused by storms in 2017. That year was named the costliest hurricane season on record due to storms like Maria, Irma, and Harvey.

While Hollingsaeter explained that their researchers found the bubble curtain wouldn't have any long-term impacts on ocean currents, environmental engineer and research scientist Dr. Tracy Fanara was more concerned about potential impacts on algal blooms in the Gulf.

"When you change one thing, there is a domino effect of things that can occur," Fanara said. "With Florida red tide, you could be forcing an upwelling event that causes those cells to come from the bottom to up top."

Upwelling explained
This graphic shows how displaced surface waters are replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water that “wells up” from below. Conditions are optimal for upwelling along the coast when winds blow along the shore.

Aside from upwelling concerns, Fanara pointed out there are benefits to hurricane season. Tropical systems can bring much-needed rainfall to communities and help replenish dry aquifers.

However, Fanara said those concerns aren't necessarily a reason to ditch the project altogether and says there's even a possibility the bubble curtain could be applied on a smaller scale.

"Trying to change the surface temps closer to shore so we won't have that increase in intensity is one thing," Fanara said. "However, impending on our earth's natural process is just something we don't understand enough."

She explained researchers can always learn from experimental projects and apply their findings to other fields down the road too.

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

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