Bill Gates files patents for geo-engineering ships

July 11, 2009


Bill Gates and colleagues are seeking patents for a flotilla-based hurricane suppression system.

The patents, discussed here, are intended to use the temperature differential between the warm, surface water and the cold, deeper waters below.

Hurricanes are caused when ocean water temperatures rise, releasing warm, moist air into the atmosphere. This water condenses and creates cyclonic wind storms due to the pressure difference between hot and cold air fronts in the atmosphere.

Gates’ idea is to use giant floating bath tubs to capture warm water on the surface, then suck it down to the ocean depths in a kind of thermohaline exchange mechanism.

The basic idea is to draw cold water up from the ocean depths to cool the ocean surface, thus reducing the frequency and intensity of tropical storms.

This appears to be the latest effort in climate change, weather suppression technologies, discussed on this blog in a series of posts here and here.

From TechFlash:

Patent watcher “theodp,” who tipped us off to the filings, says he was reminded of “The Simpsons” as he read through them. “The richest man in the world hatches a plan to alter weather and ecology in return for insurance premiums and fees from governments and individuals,” he writes. “It’s got kind of a Mr. Burns feel to it, no?”

The hurricane-suppression patent applications date to early 2008, but they were first made public this morning.

Climate: 1, Geoengineering: 0, Ocean iron fertilization experiment doesn’t work as planned

March 29, 2009
Satellitenaufnahme der Chlorophyllkonzentrationen

Satellite image of sea-surface chlorophyll concentrations with our bloom encircled. Note much larger natural bloom on the upper right and the generally higher values in the southeast than elsewhere. Graphic: NASA (

The verdict from one of the first real world geoengineering experiments?  It didn’t work (but they learned a lot).

A team of scientists from the German National Institute of Oceaonography and the Alfred Wegener Institute recently attempted one of the first large scale experiments in oceanic geoengineering.  

The team fertilized a 300 square kilometre patch of ocean with six tonnes of dissolved iron in an effort to sequester excess CO2.  The idea was that certain kinds of plankton eat the iron, die, then sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking tonnes of CO2 with them.  Unfortunately it didn’t work as expected.

From the press release:

The cooperative project Lohafex has yielded new insights on how ocean ecosystems function. But it has dampened hopes on the potential of the Southern Ocean to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and thus mitigate global warming.

Why did it dampen hopes?  Christine Lepisto has an excellent summary over at Treehugger.  She writes:

The experiment started out following scientists’ predictions. After the addition of the iron source to the swirling current, phytoplankton biomass doubled, as can be seen by the orange-reddish swirl in the NASA image above. But the growth was mainly a soft and tasty algae called Phaeocystis. Other little creatures, known as copepods, moved in quickly to gobble up the algae, soon followed by shrimp-like amphipods which lunched on the copepods. Ultimately, these amphipods end up in the bellies of squid and fin whales, so maybe iron fertilization could be a geo-engineering solution for supporting these top-of-the-food-chain species. But certainly, the experiment did not result in tons of CO2 safely sequestered on the ocean floor, proving the iron fertilization hypothesis not yet ripe for geo-engineering scale games with mother nature.

The experiments were not a failure from a scientific point of view, the press release notes that a tremendous amount of new data and information was gained.  But it does suggest that iron fertilisation is unlikely to be a solution to our climate change concerns.

This experimental data confirms many of the anxieties of commentators writing about geoengineering, which we have previously covered here (“Irreversible Climate Change, Meet Unstoppable Political Force”).

Irreversible climate change, meet unstoppable political force

February 16, 2009

Geoengineering, complexity, and the uncertain political necessities of tomorrow 

Last month Susan Solomon – Nobel Prize winning chair of the IPCC – and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a paper entitled “Irreversible climate change because of carbon dioxide emissions.”  (Summary of the paper found here, BBC coverage found here.)

The study found that, “If CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.”  In other words,

…changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. 

Even if we stopped all CO2 emission now, the Earth will still experience significant warming over the next 1,000 years.  This sounds like pretty damning evidence from some of the best scientists working on the issue.

Two recent articles have examined political and technological responses to this very, very bad news, both focusing on large scale geoengineering.  Ideas range from the fantastic, such as large floating mirrors in space that reflect sunlight, to the mundane, such as dumping tones of iron sulphate into the ocean to encourage the growth of carbon eating plankton.

Jamais Cascio, co-creator of many cool things such as the massively multiplayer online futures experiment Superstruct, has a powerful argument why geoengineering is both a very bad idea and yet also politically inevitable.  In an article for Grist, entitled “Plan B”,  he writes:

Geoengineering is risky, likely to provoke international tension, certain to have unanticipated consequences, and pretty much inevitable.

Cascio’s main points are that despite the widespread uncertainty about the technical aspects of geoengineering, projects are likely to go ahead anyway, with significant political consequences.  

The political issues geoengineering raises are directly relevant to the post-Welphian context within which the Humanitarian Futures Programme operates.

  • With geoengineering being global in impact, who determines whether or not it’s used, which technologies to deploy, and what the target temperatures will be? 
  • Who decides which unexpected side-effects are bad enough to warrant ending the process? 
  • Given that the expense required for sulfate injection (and likely cloud-brightening) would be low enough for a single country to undertake, what happens when a desperate “rogue nation” attempts geoengineering against the wishes of other states?  
  • And with the benefits and possible harm from geoengineering attempts being unevenly distributed around the planet, would it be possible to use this technology for strategic or military purposes? 

Alex Steffan argues that such projects have a huge “epic fail” potential.  He suggests that, “It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It’s bad planetary management to assume that this time — unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history — we’ll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.”  

Climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert writes, “[Geoengineering] is not really insurance. It’s more like building a lifeboat, but a lifeboat based on a design that has never been used before which has to work more or less perfectly the first time the panicked passengers are loaded into it.”

These risks alone should make any sane civilisation shy away from such “all or nothing” bids for survival.  We at HFP find so interesting is the tone of urgency involved in this debate.  These issues are being discussed with a refreshing sense of clarity, scientific understanding, and political calculation.  It is as if our lives really are at stake, time might already have run out, and we might really only have one shot at getting it right if we are to survive.  What survival might look like is another issue, but it is clear that planetary survival is a desirable outcome; certainly in line with humanitarian aid’s underlying ethos.

The humanitarian community should be following this debate, if not directly engaging in it.  Its outcome has large and game-changing implications for the way aid is done, indeed, if it will even be done at all.  Cascio touches on this issue briefly in a related comment to Steffan’s article, 

The political clashes, accusation of crimes against humanity, and potential for catastrophe [which are ] possible in a geoengineering scenario are even more likely in a scenario where emissions reductions fail to work in time, and we’re left fighting over environmental scraps…

This is sobering realism.  It paints a realistic and scary picture of the panicked international response that could occur if things begin to change quicker than expected.  In the end, argues Cascio, it’s not the technical issues which will matter.  It’s the political pressure that will decide how we respond:

If we start to see faster-than-expected increases in temperature, deadly heat waves and storms, crop failures and drought, the pressure to do something will be enormous. Desperation is a powerful driver. Desperation plus a (relatively) low-cost response, coupled with quick (if not necessarily dependable) benefits, can become an unstoppable force.

Welcome to the 21st century; where irreversible climate change meets an unstoppable political force; with massive, vital, and unknown consequences.