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SWIM – The Great Florida Hurricane Barrier

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Illustration by Jack Holden.

By Wynn Parks


“Science faction” writers like Jules Verne have demonstrated an uncanny ability to envision, perhaps determine, the direction of technological and social development via aluminized sails propelled by solar winds and dystopian politics in drug-controlled societies…all regarded as farfetched in their time.


Even with that historical precedent, the writer hesitantly ventures the observation that for many along the Florida Gulf Coast, hurricane season has lost its romantic ambience and devolved into a seasonal game of dodge ball with the ball being a 100-mile-an-hour wind. Most would agree that a remedy is needed for the dreary chores of hammer and nail, the dismal shifting of potted plants out of the wind, the frenzied jockeying for gas-pumps—ultimately, a sorely needed respite from the yearly ravishment of our coast by foreign-spawned storms.


Simply put, we need a way to stop hurricanes coming to our shores.


Since the concept of constructing hurricane barriers to protect our coast has been neither conceived nor considered by government or private corporations, the writer hopes—with the assistance of geophysicist and illustrator John C. Holden—to plant a seed that in this age of looming climate change will benefit cyclone regions globally.


Both members of our ad hoc Surface Water Intervention Mechanisms (SWIM) team are trained scientists. To wit, Professor Holden and the writer are fellows in good standing of the International Stop Continental Drift Society. Both have extensive experience with years of collaborative geological “mind experiments.” Holden is a former NOAA Geologist, the writer a home brewmeister who majored in physics and chemistry.


The SWIM project is this group’s proposal to establish the Florida Gulf Coast’s first hurricane barrier. While appearing gargantuan in scope, in principle it is a relatively simple undertaking—well within the technological scope that the oil industry has demonstrated in the establishment of its deep-water oil well heads.


Embedded within the collective consciousness of most Floridians is the knowledge that the temperature of the Gulf waters determines whether any given storm will fizzle or intensify. Eighty degrees Fahrenheit is the critical temperature. So the simple principle upon which the proposed hurricane barrier would operate is to cool the water in the path of a storm, with surface water temperature lower than 80 degrees.


Though the average depth of the Gulf of Mexico is 5,000 feet, the Sigsbee Deep in the middle of the Gulf basin reaches a depth of 12,000. Water temperatures drop off with depth, and approach freezing at the bottom. From 300 feet to the surface is what’s called the Gulf’s Summer Thermocline. That layer acts as the heat source upon which storms feed. So the cooling of the upper layer of water could be accomplished by pumping deep “benthic” waters into the upper 300 feet of surface water.


In the proposed SWIM project, cool water would be lifted into the Thermocline by Benthic Siphons—large, concrete chimneys resembling nuclear power plants, with diameters as large as a football field is long; enclosing turbines, the size of oil-tanker propellers. The impracticality of cooling the Gulf’s entire 615,000-square-mile surface goes without saying, but topographic maps of the Gulf’s floor reveal that, aside from storm tracks crossing dry land, the Gulf basin offers only two primary open water routes into it.


To the east, the Florida Straits, along the north coast of Cuba, lead from the Atlantic into the Gulf, and to the south is the Cuba-Yucatan Strait leading in from the Caribbean. It is the contention of the SWIM team that, by establishing parallel arrays of Benthic Siphons in these two relatively shallow straits, a large percentage of the storms entering the Gulf of Mexico might be either dissipated or degraded. As the technology and experience in establishing Benthic Siphon arrays progress, additional B.S. arrays might be added along the U.S. Gulf Coast itself, not to mention other such continental shelving as the Yucatan Banks.


Power supply to those B.S. array fields would be routine, since it would utilize “old” technology, and the initial investment in marine cable between the volcanically active subduction zone in the Antilles would be quickly returned by the renewable and abundant geothermal power available there.


The environmental impact of the proposed hurricane barriers would, logically, be negligible, since the appropriate B.S. field would be activated in the paths of storms for short durations only, and the regions of surface water affected would never need to be outside the normal yearly temperature variation of Gulf waters.


As mentioned above, the expertise to undertake the SWIM project is well within current U.S. oil spill technology. However, financial resources for a SWIM Project would probably be beyond the taxpayers of Florida alone. As beneficiaries, the other Gulf Coast states might be called upon to share the expenses of a hurricane barrier.


Certainly Mexico, a major beneficiary with an eastern coast three and a half times that of the U.S., plus lower labor costs, would be an ideal investor as well.

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