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Former Microsoft executive has a way to prevent hurricanes

NASA image of Hurricane Sandy spinning in the Atlantic Ocean and making landfall on the East Coast. Sandy has been downgraded to a "Superstorm." As of Tuesday morning, almost million people are without power due to the storm.

Bellevue inventors say there is a way to either reduce the strength of hurricanes or prevent them completely.

Microsoft’s former chief technology officer, Nathan Myhrvold, says people look at him in a strange way when he tells them his company has a way to stop hurricanes.

“That sounds looney, right? You say how on earth are you going to change a hurricane? It turns out, there’s a way,” he says.

Myhrvold is a big thinker. He created Microsoft’s research division, and in 1991 predicted the emergence of something he called the “digital wallet” that would be a phone, schedule manager, computer, library of music and books. Sounds like an iPhone.

He left Microsoft more than a decade ago to start Intellectual Ventures. They refer to the Eastside company as, I-V.

“Our only job is to invent, so we try to swing for the fences and try to solve really big problems,” says Myhrvold, the company’s CEO. “Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t but we’d rather try and fail than not try at all.”

Hurricanes are “really big problems” but Myhrvold believes there’s a simple solution.

Scientists have long understood the natural mechanics behind hurricanes. The storms are fueled by warm water at the ocean’s surface. When hurricanes form, the ocean is about 82 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface. Deep below, the water is much colder.

All we need to do is “stir the ocean,” he says in a TED talk on the subject.

Forcing the cool water to the surface causes hurricanes to lose their power.

Great. Wait, how do we stir hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean?

Using free wave energy and no moving parts with something called the Salter Sink.

Dr. Stephen Salter is also with I-V. His invention is basically a several-hundred-foot-long funnel attached to a flotation device.

As warm surface water spills into the device, the funnel carries it to the cold depths below. Waves wash over and raise the water level inside the “sink” or funnel, then gravity pulls the water down through a tube.

Scientists say that even a 1-degree difference in surface temperature could be the difference between the formation of a hurricane, or between a Category 4 or 5 storm.

Myhrvold suggests deploying thousands of Salter Sinks in the Atlantic, where hurricanes form.

“Our rough estimates are it would take on the order of 10,000 of these devices which ought to be possible to construct for a few thousand dollars apiece,” Myhrvold says. “Even if it was tens of millions of dollars per year, that is a drop in the bucket compared to what even what of these hurricanes costs in terms of property damage that it causes.”

Damage estimates from Hurricane Sandy could run from $10 billion to $20 billion, with insured damage of $5-10 billion, according to disaster estimator Eqecat.

The 2005 Hurricane Katrina killed more 1,836 people and caused damage worth $108 billion.

Myhrvold says his invention company’s water-stirring-hurricane-stopping flotation devices would not create any environmental or ecological problems.

The only negative he can think of with the Salter Sink is that it would allow people to keep building things near the seashore, which “they seem to be doing perfectly well without having any hurricane prevention in place.”

The hurricane stopper will work “in theory.” The only way to know for sure if it works is to try it. The I-V team thinks the potential reward from stopping hurricanes far exceeds the potential embarrassment if it doesn’t work.

Although Intellectual Ventures has grand ideas, and claims patents on more than 30,000 inventions, they have yet to produce a viable product.


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