Artificial Upwelling

When Phil Kithil decided to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, he wanted to do something far more dramatic than donating money or building houses. Kithil, an entrepreneur and inventor, set out to devise a way to actually prevent future destruction by weakening hurricanes before they strike land. And his solution—a system of self-powered pumps that cool the ocean’s surface—could also soon address another pressing problem: the demise of coral reefs.

As sea temperatures rise, the abnormally warm water kills off colorful algae that help coral survive—a process known as coral bleaching. Kithil believes his pumps could prevent this by cooling the water surrounding reefs. The pumps themselves are surprisingly low-tech: a single pump consists of a long, plastic tube positioned vertically in the ocean, then held in place by a weight at the bottom and a buoy at the top. As the buoy bobs in the waves, the entire apparatus rises and falls, forcing cool, deep water up the tube and onto the surface.

Tests have shown that one pump can reduce surface temperatures by as much as four degrees Celsius. But that result covered only a small area; to see whether the method works on a larger scale, Kithil’s company, Atmocean Inc., will arrange several pumps around a test reef this summer. If effective, the system could be deployed as soon as Kithil finds investors to cover the cost.

At thousands of dollars per pump, the cost could be hefty, but Kithil says it might not be such a hard sell. That’s because the water pumped to the surface is not only cool, it’s rich in nutrients. This triggers plankton blooms that in turn absorb CO2. Kithil believes this will generate carbon offsets that can be sold on the open market, creating revenue, saving reefs, and delivering proof-of-concept for Kithil’s larger scheme: a rapid-response system that could drop swarms of pumps in hurricanes’ paths. ❧


—Justin Matlick

Illustration ©Graham Murdoch/



  • wes March 11, 2009 at 12:16 am

    ahh. how wonderfully egotistic of humankind. another plan to control mother nature. im sure that the cooling of the sea surface and the end to hurricanes wont have an effect on anything but the intended target! come on. how about a more sustainable approach.. like better levys.. or dare i say it… dont live on environmentally priceless wetlands.. especially ones that are prone to hurricanes and high water. the answer is sustainability. adapt to the needs of the environment and stop forcing the environment to adapt to the so called needs of humans.


  • Bar_Barian March 11, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Actually, if this works across all three fronts proposed in the article it could be just the kind of global control we need to start exerting if we ever want this rock named Earth to last long enough for us to make it off of her. It would be a different story if I didn’t believe plankton loss and coral death were largely our fault. As it stands, we need to do a lot of cleaning up after ourselves before we can really start moving forward. Until we as a species can look after our own back yard we will not possess the resources or the mentality required to become a space-faring society.

    imo, the hurricane thing is really incidental in this case… like the cookie when your dog learns to sit…


  • sounds good April 9, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    by quicker and enmass circulating the warmer surface water… pockets of cooler surfacewater may be seen… but stepping back and looking at a potential larger picture… the end result “could” be quicker warming of the body of water over all… making the issue worse.


  • Doug Jones April 10, 2009 at 12:24 am

    Gee, Wes, maybe you can reduce the human impact on the earth. All you need is a good sharp knife, but remember, Rippy the Razor says, “Down the street, not across the tracks.”


  • Looseleaf April 10, 2009 at 8:48 am

    @Bar_Brian: “it could be just the kind of global control we need to start exerting if we ever want this rock named Earth to last long enough for us to make it off of her”

    And you’re going where, exactly?


  • Kevin April 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Well, this definitely qualifies as a sign that things are out of control.

    Interpret that comment as you see fit.


  • Olawumi June 20, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Importance of conservation should be listed for better understanding


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