Space & Innovation

Offshore Wind Farms Work Like Hurricane Speed Bumps

Scientists discover that an offshore wind farm can dramatically reduce hurricane winds and decrease storm surge.

Offshore wind turbines like those being planned off the East Coast could one day do double duty for residents, according to a new study.

Scientists at the University of Delaware and Stanford University say that in addition to generating several thousand megawatts of electricity, giant wind farms could also help mitigate the destructive forces of hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy that occasionally smash into the eastern seaboard. That could save a city like New York billions of dollars on the cost of a sea wall.

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"If you add a large wind farm, there's a diminishment of the power of the hurricane -- and the destructiveness," said Mark Z. Jacobson, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford University who led the study with Willett Kempton and Cristina Archer from the University of Delaware.

The team had spent years building computer models just to simulate hurricanes. Separately, Jacobson also studied wind extraction: how much wind there is in the world to potentially pull from turbines and what that means for the climate.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, he wondered whether enough wind turbines could extract energy from a hurricane and even lessen the impact. Then, once the computer models had advanced, the theory was put to the test.

Each computer model divides the atmosphere up into horizontal boxes stacked on top of each other like 3-D grids, Jacobson explained. Equations are added that describe the atmospheric motions happening inside and between the boxes. The scientists created models that simulated Hurricanes Isaac, Sandy and Katrina -- with and without wind farms.

According to their simulations, turbines could reduce a hurricane's wind speeds by up to 92 miles per hour. When the scientists modeled Hurricane Katrina, they found that 78,000 wind turbines -- a little more than 300 gigawatts of installed power -- stationed within 60 miles of the Louisiana shore would have significantly slowed the winds and also decreased the storm surge up to 79 percent.

The models also showed substantial wind speed and storm surge reductions for Isaac and Sandy. And using even half as many turbines would still have a benefit, Jacobson said.

The effects depended in part on where the wind turbines were placed. "The more turbines you have, the bigger the benefit," Jacobson said. He and his colleagues published their research in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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Julie Lundquist is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies how wind turbines and the atmosphere interact. "These very large wind farms that appear in Mark's model are essentially extending the effect of the land out into the water," she said. "Hurricanes dissipate very quickly once they strike land so we shouldn't be surprised that they will lose strength when interacting with large wind farms."

"If you pack enough of these in, it seems like it's realistic to think you can take some of the punch out of the storm," said Rick Luettich, who directs the University of North Carolina's Institute of Marine Science and its Center for Natural Hazards and Disasters in Chapel Hill. "This kind of out-of-the box thinking is what we need over the next 50 years or so to help us get right with Mother Nature."

Wind turbines generate electricity while subduing a storm's strength.

A year ago today, Hurricane Sandy slammed the east coast of the United States with up to 90-mph winds and 14-foot storm surges. The hurricane had been tracking, like most Atlantic hurricanes, northeast along the coast until it collided with a trough of low pressure and took a hard left turn, barreling over New York and New Jersey. The detour, the result of a climate-change induced strong blocking ridge of high pressure over Greenland, caused 900 miles of widespread damage in an area unaccustomed to such violent storms. Here is a look back at some of the damage wrought by this historic hurricane.

A no gas sign at a gas station on Route 1 in Elizabeth after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey.

People line up to have their gas cans filled with fuel at a gas station on Nov. 1, 2012 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. With power out in many parts of the state and so few stations open in certain areas, gas is in heavy demand for both vehicles and generators.

A resident rides a bike on a flooded street in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Oct. 31, 2012. Hurricane Sandy lashed the U.S. east coast and made a landfall in New Jersey Monday evening, knocking out power for millions and killing at least 64 people.

Sandbags are seen lining the streets of Lower Manhattan the morning after the flooding from Hurricane Sandy.

Scenes from Lower Manhattan the morning after the flooding from Hurricane Sandy.

New Yorkers from mid and downtown who are without electricity in their homes, gather to charge their appliances, iPhones and iPads from the electrical outlets and power sources belonging to a little perfume store on West 29th street.

The day after "super storm" Sandy, the coastal community of Breezy Point, in Far Rockaway, Queens remains devastated by fire and flooding.

A crowd of passengers attempts to board an MTA bus at 1st Ave. and 14th St. Bus service had been temporarily suspended due to Hurricane Sandy and began operating on a reduced schedule late Monday afternoon.

The day after "super storm" Sandy, the coastal community of Breezy Point, in Far Rockaway, Queens remains devastated by fire and flooding.

Heavy surf caused by Hurricane Sandy buckles Ocean Ave on Oct. 30, 2012 in Avalon, New Jersey. The storm has claimed at least 33 lives in the United States, and has caused massive flooding across much of the Atlantic seaboard. US President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the US East Coast including New York City, with wide spread power outages and significant flooding in parts of the city.

The day after "super storm" Sandy, the coastal community of Far Rockaway, Queens remains devastated by fire and flooding.

Down trees in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn blocked roads and destroyed property.

A man watches waves generated from the remnants Hurricane Sandy as they crash into the shoreline of Lake Michigan on Oct. 30, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Waves up to 25 feet high generated by winds up to 50 miles-per-hour were expected on the lake.

Trees were uprooted in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, NY.

Taxis seen submerged in a flooded street Monday night in Queens Borough of New York.

Flights were disrupted in airports throughout the east coast, with nearly 14,000 cancellations because of the storm, according to the Los Angeles Times. This photo shows Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C., nearly deserted.

Not only were airplanes grounded; trains went idle and metro systems came to a halt in anticipation of the hurricane. As roads became flooded, they were gradually closed down as well. Waves crash over barriers along a road in Winthrop, Mass.

Financial markets closed Monday in the wake of the storm. Here, the trading floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange is totally empty.

Federal and state authorities have been firm in their warnings to the public lying within the storm's path to be prepared, with Sandy commonly being described as a "truly historic event." The National Weather Service in New Jersey was unusually firm in imploring residents heed evacuation warnings and "think of your loved ones" and "emergency responders who will be unable to reach you." In this photo, a person stands on the edge of a porch while waves crash higher and higher.

Rising tides flood Rehobeth Beach, Del., in this photo.

When high tide rolled in to Copaigue, N.Y., Monday, streets and houses, including this partially submerged dwelling, were flooded.

This family is being rescued in a pickup truck after floodwaters overtook their home in New Jersey.

High winds and rains damaged this crane on top of a skyscraper in New York. The crane later collapsed.

Debris is scattered along the streets of Atlantic City, N.J., following a day of pounding by Hurricane Sandy. The state's governor Chris Christie in an emergency declaration ordered the evacuation of 30,000 residents and the shutdown of the state's casinos.

By nightfall, streets throughout Atlantic City were underwater, as was the case with much of southern New Jersey.

New York was also particularly hard hit in the first night by Hurricane Sandy's winds and rains. This gas station in Brooklyn is partially submerged by rising waters.

An entire wall of this Manhattan house collapsed in the middle of the storm. Emergency responders arrived quickly on the scene.

Large portions of Lower and Midtown Manhattan lost power due to the storm. One World Trade Center is the sole building illuminated in this photo. As of early Tuesday morning, nearly five million people in 15 states and the District of Columbia were without electricity as a result of Hurricane Sandy.