Hurricanes are among the most devastating natural disasters. That’s because hurricanes are huge! A medium-sized hurricane covers an area about the size of Texas. On a globe they cover 6 to 12 degrees latitude. And when they blow over land, they leave wide marks of destruction caused by strong winds and rain. Damage from hurricanes regularly exceeds billions of dollars. Can’t we do something about it? Can’t we blow up hurricanes apart? You redirect? Or prevent them from forming at all? What does science say about it? That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Donald Trump, the former President of the United States, has reportedly repeatedly asked if it is possible to eliminate hurricanes by dropping atomic bombs. His proposal was also quickly rejected by scientists and the media. Your argument can be summed up as “you can’t”, and even if you could, “it would be a bad idea”. Trump then denied ever saying anything, the world forgot, and here we still wonder if we can’t do something to stop hurricanes.
Trump’s idea may sound crazy, but he wasn’t the first to think of destroying a hurricane, and it probably won’t be the last. And I think trying to prevent hurricanes isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
The idea of destroying a hurricane came up immediately after the first use of nuclear weapons in Japan in August 1945. August is in the middle of Florida hurricane season. Miami Beach Mayor Herbert Frink made the connection. He asked President Harry Truman about the possibility of fighting hurricanes with the new weapon. And the Americans took a close look at it.
But they quickly realized that the energy released by an atomic bomb, while gigantic compared to any other type of weapon, was still nothing compared to the energies that build up in hurricanes. For comparison: the atomic bombs dropped on Japan each released around 20 kilotons of energy. A typical hurricane releases around 10,000 times as much energy – per hour. The total output of a hurricane is comparable to the total global electricity consumption. That’s because hurricanes are huge!
By the way, hurricanes and typhoons are the same. The generic term used by meterologists is “tropical cyclone”. It refers to “a rotating, organized system of clouds and thunderstorms that arise over tropical or subtropical waters.” When they get large enough, they are either called hurricanes or typhoons, or they just remain tropical cyclones. But it’s like the difference between an astronaut and a cosmonaut. The same!
But back to nuclear weapons. In 1956, an Air Force meteorologist named Jack W Reed suggested launching a megaton atomic bomb – about 50 times the power of Japan in Japan – into a hurricane. Just to see what happened. He argued, “Since meteorologists are unlikely to derive a complete theory of hurricane dynamics for several years, arguments for and against are being put forward with no definitive basis for the expected impact. Only a full test could prove this to results. “In other words, if we don’t, we’ll never know how bad the idea is. Regarding radiation hazard, Reed claimed this was negligible:” A puff of air wouldn’t cause heavy rainfall cause ”, it doesn’t matter that a complete theory of hurricane dynamics was not available then and still is not.
Reed’s proposal was rejected by both the military and the scientific community. The test never took place, but the suggestion is interesting nonetheless, as Reed spent some time explaining how to intelligently control a hurricane.
To understand what it was getting at, let’s talk briefly about how hurricanes form. Hurricanes can form over the ocean when the water temperature is high enough. The problem starts at around 26 degrees Celsius or 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The warm water evaporates and rises. When it rises, it cools down and creates clouds. This tower of water-heavy clouds begins to rotate because the Coriolis force, which comes from the rotation of planet earth, acts on the air that is sucked in. The more the clouds turn, the better they can suck in more air. As the spin accelerates, the center of the hurricane clears, leaving a mostly calm region, typically a few tens of miles in diameter and very low air pressure. This calm center is called the “eye” of the hurricane.
Reed now argued that detonating a megaton nuclear weapon right in the eye of a hurricane would blow away the warm air that fed the circuit, increase air pressure and prevent the storm from gaining more force.
The obvious problem with this idea is that even if you were successful you would be depositing radioactive debris in clouds that you just blasted around the world. Congratulations. But even if you ignored the little problem with radioactivity, it almost certainly wouldn’t work because – hurricanes are huge.
Not only is it that you are still competing against a force three orders of magnitude beyond that of your atomic bomb, but also that an explosion doesn’t move much air from one place to another as Reed envisioned. The explosion creates a shock wave – that’s bad news for anything in the way of that shock – but it does little to change the air pressure after the shock wave goes through.
If nuclear bombs aren’t the way to deal with hurricanes, then maybe we can rain them down before they land? This technique is known as “cloud seeding” and we talked about it in a previous video. If you remember, there are two types of cloud seeds, one that creates snow or ice and one that creates rain.
The first, called glaciogenic sowing, was actually tried on hurricanes by Homer Simpson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMVKksxZgwU No, not this Homer, but a man named Robert Homer Simpson who, in 1962, was the first director of the American Stormfury project, which aimed to mitigate hurricanes.
The Americans * actually sprayed a hurricane with silver iodide and then found that the hurricane actually weakened. Hooray! But wait. Further research showed that hurricane clouds contain very few supercooled water droplets, so that the method itself could not theoretically work. Instead, it found that hurricanes often experience similar changes without intervention, so the observation was most likely accidental. The Stormfury project was canceled in 1983.
What about hygroscopic cloud seed, where clouds are sprayed with particles that absorb water to make the clouds rain? The effects of this have been studied to some extent by observing natural phenomena. For example, dust blown over the Sahara can be carried over great distances by winds. While much remains to be understood, some observations seem to suggest that interactions with this dust make it easier for clouds to rain down, thereby naturally weakening hurricanes.
Why don’t we try something similar? Again, the problem is that hurricanes are huge! It would take an army of planes to spray the clouds, and even then that would almost certainly not make the hurricanes go away, it would only weaken them.
There is a long list of other things that people have considered to get rid of hurricanes. For example, spray the top layers of a hurricane with particles that absorb sunlight to warm the air and thereby reduce updraft. But the problem here too is that hurricanes are enormous! Remember, you’d have to spray an area the size of Texas.
A similar idea is to prevent the air over the ocean from evaporating and fueling the growth of the hurricane, for example by covering the ocean surface with films of oil. The obvious problem with this idea is that you now have all of the oil on the ocean. But also some small experiments have shown that the oil cover has a tendency to dissolve and where it doesn’t dissolve it can actually help warm the water, which is exactly what you don’t want.
How about if we cool the ocean surface instead? This idea was pursued, for example, by Bill Gates, who, together with a group of scientists and entrepreneurs, patented a pump system in 2009 that floats in the ocean and pumps cool water from the depths to the surface. In 2017, the Norwegian company SINTEF made a similar proposal. The problem with this idea is, guess what, hurricanes are huge! You would need to have a large number of these pumps in the right place at the right time.
Another apparently popular idea is to drag icebergs from the poles to the tropics to cool the water. I’ll leave it up to you to find the logistics for this.
Still other people have argued that you don’t actually have to blow a hurricane apart to get rid of it, all you have to do is strategically detonate an atomic bomb to make the hurricane change direction. The problem with this idea is that nobody wants multiple nations to play nuclear pool on the oceans.
As you’ve seen, there are a lot of ideas out there, but the main problem is that hurricanes are huge!
And that means the most promising way to prevent them is to intervene before they get too big. Hurricanes don’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, they take several days to form, and they’re usually caused by storms in the tropics that don’t appear out of nowhere either.
The problem, then, is that meteorologists currently cannot predict well enough and long enough in advance which regions will form hurricanes. As you’ve seen, researchers have tried several methods to disrupt the feedback cycle that leads to hurricanes, and some of them actually work. So if we could tell exactly when and where to intervene, it could actually make a difference.
So my bottom line is: If you want to prevent hurricanes, you don’t need bigger bombs, you have to invest in better weather forecasts.