Bill Gates made news last week when the news media caught wind of his latest idea. The Microsoft co-founder, who has focused much of his energy on philanthropy in recent years, (even convincing Warren Buffet to leave the bulk of his estate to the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation) appears to be trying to save mankind from hurricanes.

Gates and colleagues have filed five patents related to their idea. The basic idea is to have barges that are fitted with pumps that would exchange surface water with water from the depths. Ocean water gets considerably colder as you go deeper into the water. Since hurricanes grow stronger when they pass over warm water, the Gates plan is to cool the water in the path of the hurricane; starving it of the “fuel” it requires to grow.

Let’s tackle the major issues.

Will it work?

Writers in the comment-o-sphere (places where the public can leave comments) on the major media sites seem to have two basic thoughts. The majority view is that this is the dumbest idea ever. The minority view is that this is a brilliant idea.

Where do I stand? Somewhere in the middle, leaning a bit toward the brilliant side of the discussion. Bill Gates may be a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. I doubt that he would attach his name to something like this without some due diligence on the feasibility of success.

I know a bit more about the nature of hurricanes than the average person, but not enough to be considered an expert. I personally think there is a decent chance that this plan could reduce the strength of a hurricane. If this method could drop a hurricane’s strength from a category 4 to a category 3, this could result in massive reduction in property damage and loss of life.

Ken Caldeira of The Carnegie Institution partnered with Gates on the patent applications. Other scientists are more skeptical, although some have gone on record with their belief that there is a strong likelihood that the plan could work.

Who pays for it?

There will certainly be significant cost to this plan. Not only is the equipment certain to be expensive, but it is also quite likely that many of the barges will be destroyed when they are deployed into the path of a hurricane. They might be able to prevent the hurricane from building strength, but the current strength of the storm might overwhelm them as a storm passes overhead.

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where a private company could fund this operation. My guess is that the most likely solution would be a government agency that licenses the technology and pays for all expense.

How, then, would this agency receive funding? My suggestion would be a surcharge against those entities that would stand to gain – homeowner’s insurance companies, as well as the government-funded National Flood Insurance Program. The amount of the surcharge would be based on the hurricane exposure that each company has. I won’t waste your time (or mine) hammering out the exact amounts.

Even if the plan does end up being expensive, it could still end up paying for itself. Hurricane Katrina (and the subsequent breaching of levees) killed 1800 people and caused an estimate $80 billion in damage. It would be interesting to see how much damage a similar storm would do if the Gates devices were in its path.

Should we do it?

One argument against trying to control hurricanes is that hurricanes are a natural part of the ecosystem, and that changing the intensity or frequency of hurricanes could wreak untold havoc on the ecosystem. Additionally, exchanging the surface water and the deep water could have a negative impact on the species of wildlife that happened to live in those locations.

I agree that these are valid points.

At some point, however, this is going to boil down to a decision about the value of a human life, relative to environmental impact. Most of us will probably agree that is acceptable to cause some degree of damage to the ecosystem in order to save thousands of human lives. On the flip side, many among us would not agree to massively damaging the ocean ecosystem (and countless living beings) in order to save a single human life. Here’s an extreme example – would you kill all of the dolphins in the world if it would extend the life of one person by one year? The tricky part is the middle ground. Exactly how much value should we assign to each human life?

Am I dodging the answer to that question? Yes, most definitely.

Weekend articles

Did you take a break from the internet this weekend?  You may have missed these articles on The Soap Boxers.

  • Friday – Heidi and the Shark. This short story details the struggle between Heidi and a hammerhead shark on the high seas.
  • Friday – Tribute to Jamie Moyer. We poke a bit of fun at the ageless wonder in the aftermath of his one hitter.
  • Saturday – Saturday Stew takes a look at Harry Potter, Google, the New York Yankees, and more.  Help yourself to a bowl of stew.
  • Sunday – In North of the Border, Tyson gives us an introduction to the Canadian Football League.