Scientists say Trump's nuke-the-hurricanes plan not practical as radioactive fallout could be disastrous
Apart from the humongous energy requirement, the NOAA says brute force might not even alter the storm and the released radioactive substances would fairly quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems.
President Donald Trump has reportedly suggested nuking hurricanes to stop them from hitting the US, but scientists say it is a bad idea. According to researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - a scientific agency within the US Department of Commerce - besides the fact that it might not change the storm for starters, the radioactive fallout would be devastating.
According to US news website Axios, Trump has suggested many times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the US. “During one hurricane briefing at the White House, Trump said, “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” according to one source who was there. “They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they’re moving across the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane, and it disrupts it. Why can’t we do that?” the source added, paraphrasing the president’s remarks,” says the article.
The same article states that according to the source, the briefer said something to the effect of, “Sir, we’ll look into that.” It adds: “Trump replied by asking incredulously how many hurricanes the US could handle and reiterating his suggestion that the government intervene before they make landfall. The briefer “was knocked back on his heels,” the source in the room added. People were astonished. After the meeting ended, we thought, ‘What the f---? What do we do with this'?”
This is, however, not the first time that the idea of firing nuclear weapons at hurricanes has been floated. It was proposed back in the late 1950s at the Proceedings of the Second Plowshare Symposium, May 13-15, 1959, in San Francisco, California. The symposium had deliberated on the scientific applications of nuclear explosions in the fields of nuclear physics, seismology, meteorology, and space.
In a technical report that documented all the papers presented at the symposium on May 15, 1959, one of the chapters was on some speculations on the effects of nuclear explosions on hurricanes. The paper, presented by Jack W. Reed, a meteorologist at Sandia Corporation, had stated that a test would demonstrate conclusively whether or not nuclear explosions can be used to influence or destroy severe tropical storms. Reed had suggested the idea of using a submarine to penetrate a storm eye underwater at least a day in advance and record as many weather data and trends as possible before launching missile-borne devices.
“A most promising new approach to storm destruction is suggested by recent observations of the temperature structure of a hurricane. These show that the eye is nearly 10 degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding storm at 20,000 feet above sea level. It appears that a megaton explosion in the eye would engulf and entrain a large quantity of this ‘hot’ air and carry it out of the storm into the stratosphere,” Reed had said in the report. This removed air would be replaced by cooler air, which would reduce the damage potential of the storm and weaken it, the report had said.
Owing to the existence of such theories on using nuclear weapons against hurricanes, the NOAA maintains a dedicated page, titled “Why don’t we try to destroy tropical cyclones by nuking them?”
According to the NOAA, during each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms. “Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the storm, this approach neglects the problem that the released radioactive fallout would fairly quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems,” says the agency, adding, “Needless to say, this is not a good idea.”
The primary obstacle with using explosives to modify hurricanes is the amount of energy required, explain researchers. This is because the heat that is released from a hurricane is equal to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb that explodes every 20 minutes, says NOAA. The researchers explain that to alter or shrink a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane, one would have to add approximately a half-ton of air for each square meter inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion (500,000,000) tons for an eye 20 km in radius. It is tough to visualize a practical way of moving that much air, they add.
“Now for a more rigorous scientific explanation of why this would not be an effective hurricane modification technique. The main difficulty with using explosives to modify hurricanes is the amount of energy required. A fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20x10 to the power of 13 watts and converts less than 10% of the heat into the mechanical energy of the wind. The heat release is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. According to the 1993 World Almanac, the entire human race used energy at a rate of 10 to the power of 13 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20% of the power of a hurricane,” explain researchers at NOAA.
The NOAA adds, “If we think about mechanical energy, the energy at humanity’s disposal is closer to the storm's, but the task of focusing even half of the energy on the spot in the middle of a remote ocean would still be formidable. Brute force interference with hurricanes doesn’t seem promising.”
The Axios article further says that Trump had raised the same issue on another occasion with a senior administration official, and this conversation is supposedly described in a 2017 NSC memo. “A source briefed on the NSC memo said it does not contain the word “nuclear”; it just says the president talked about bombing hurricanes. The sources said that Trump’s “bomb the hurricanes” idea - which he floated early in the first year and a bit of his presidency before John Bolton took over as national security adviser - went nowhere and never entered a formal policy process,” reports the article.
The NOAA further says that attacking weak tropical waves or depressions before they have a chance to grow into hurricanes is not very promising either. “About 80 of these disturbances form every year in the Atlantic basin, but only about five become hurricanes in a typical year. There is no way to tell in advance which ones will develop. If the energy released in a tropical disturbance were only 10% of that released in a hurricane, it’s still a lot of power, so that the hurricane police would need to dim the whole world’s lights many times a year,” says the NOAA.