Nuking a Hurricane Is a Stupid Idea

Why have a hurricane when you could have a radioactive hurricane!

Hurricane Florence as seen from the International Space Station in September 2018 [NASA (edit by Ian O’Neill)]

Now, I don’t like to use the “s” word too often; it’s often misplaced and used to belittle someone’s lack of knowledge. A lack of knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean someone doesn’t want to learn, so to say an idea is stupid suggests someone is willfully ignorant. But this is one occasion where I’ll use “stupid” with a high degree of confidence that this idea is, well, very stupid:

President Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States, according to sources who have heard the president’s private remarks and been briefed on a National Security Council memorandum that recorded those comments.


We’re now into year three of this administration’s willful ignorance of climate science, so it may not come as a surprise that the president doesn’t like to surround himself with many scientifically-savvy minds, lest their ideas get in the way of his administration’s damaging policies. So, while his statements may sound a little, shall we say, “extreme,” he’s coming from a place of ignorance and a horrible worldview that obsesses over detonating nuclear weapons to solve problems.

It’s easy for the science community to mock Trump’s comments as he often delivers these half-baked ideas with such bombastic enthusiasm that every day feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but it might come as a surprise to hear that he’s not the first to float the idea of nuking hurricanes. In fact, the idea of interrupting the convection currents of hurricanes over the Atlantic Ocean with nuclear blasts dates back to the Eisenhower era. And since then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which is a government body, I might add) regularly receives queries about going all Dr. Strangelove on the Atlantic.

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. Needless to say, this is not a good idea.


Fears of spreading radioactive fallout far and wide notwithstanding, if a nuke was actually effective at snuffing out a hurricane before it can even form, or at least redirect a powerful one from hitting Florida, say, wouldn’t the ends justify the means? In other words, if a deadly storm (capable of killing thousands) is averted, is a little bit of radiation really that bad? Well, yes, it is really bad, but nuking the ocean would be terribly ineffective hurricane mitigation effort.

As discussed by the NOAA, the amount of energy carried by a fully developed hurricane is huge and to interrupt or redirect a formed hurricane would require a lot of nuclear warheads detonating all the time.

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 20×1013 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 1013 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20% of the power of a hurricane.


That’s not all: to concentrate the compression effects of the nuclear blasts on the central region of the cyclone to effectively dampen its sheer power, in a nutshell, simply isn’t possible.

OK then, why not drop a bomb on the weak tropical depressions (i.e. the seeds of hurricanes) to prevent them from growing in the first place? Well, that would be a crap-shoot. According to the NOAA, “[a]bout 80 of these disturbances form every year in the Atlantic basin, but only about 5 become hurricanes in a typical year.” There’s no obvious way of knowing which ones will ripen into that “killer” storm and, besides, we’d still need to dump a lot of nuclear energy into those depressions to stand a chance of stopping them.

Of course, these arguments sound reasonable; there are very few informed people who, after a little research, would doubt that firing nukes at weather systems is a stupid idea. But here we are, talking about the leader of the richest and most powerful nation on the planet wanting to wage a nuclear war on Mother Nature herself, while ignoring the very real science behind global warming (which, by the way, supercharges the ferocity of hurricanes) that is currently causing irreparable damage to our ecosystem.

What a time to be alive.

UPDATE (Aug. 26): Trump denies everything. In a baffling mix of third and first person, which leads me to believe it’s all true: