August 27, 2019

Trump, Nuclear Bombs and Hurricanes

Today, I received calls from two media outlets asking about Trump's supposed suggestion that the U.S. might weaken hurricanes by exploding nuclear weapons inside of them.   

Now there is some debate on whether he said they in the first place:  the story was released by Axios, some kind of media outlet, with President Trump denying he even said it.

So putting the question of whether President Trump said it or not, does nuking hurricanes make sense?  If not, are there other ways to alter their strength or paths?    Hurricanes have been an interest of mine for a long time--in fact, my Ph.D. thesis was on the disturbances that lead to their development.

Would nuking hurricanes work?    This is not a new concept; in fact, a meteorologist Jack Reed of the Sandia Corporation wrote a paper on the subject and a more recent note has been distributed by two experienced hurricane scientists at NOAA's AOML lab.  The idea behind nuking was that hurricanes depend on having a warm inner core (which causes the low pressure).  Exploding lots of nuclear weapon in the hurricane eye would blast the hot air away, allowing cooler air in the periphery to surge inward, weakening the storm.

Let me save you some effort and give you the bottom line of these analyses:  it wouldn't work. 

Even a middle-of-the-road hurricane releases HUGE amounts of energy (mainly by condensing water vapor and releasing latent heat).  So much energy that human capabilities seem puny, even with nuclear weapons at hand.  An estimate by NOAA scientists is that a fully developed hurricane releases energy at a rate equivalent to detonating  a 10 megaton bomb every 20 minutes.  And there is no reason to expect that the warm air would be "blown away."    And even it worked, there is the little issue of a massive release of radioactivity.

So let's cross nuking hurricanes off the list.

Back in the 1960's, another approach to weakening hurricanes was suggested:  cloud seeding outside of the eye wall.  The idea is that cloud seeding would result in the conversion of liquid water droplets to ice, releasing lots of latent heat outside the inner eyewalls, causing the eye to expand or a new outer eyewall to form---and either change would weaken the winds.

This suggestion was taken seriously enough that the approach was tried in a NOAA/DOD  field project called STORMFURY, with aircraft flying into hurricanes, seeding with silver iodide or dry ice.  The results were mixed and no compelling evidence for the efficacy of the Stormfury approach was compiled.  The project ended during the 70s, both due to lack of evidence of impact and the threat of lawsuits.

More recently, another approach has been suggested:  cloud seeing storm systems in the environment of hurricanes, subtly changing the "steering currents" controlling storm direction and speed so that hurricanes miss major metro areas.   No serious attempts have been made of such an environmental steering approach.

Perhaps the best solution for dealing with huricances is to discourage the massive development that has been occurring on our southeast coastline, development that is putting millions of folks at risk.    Reducing CO2 emissions is also a good idea, since increasing greenhouse gases may well enhance the destructiveness of the most powerful hurricanes.


  1. Cliff,

    I enjoyed learning more about hurricanes! It's fun to know how where and how these seemingly outrageous ideas get started. Also, how you put them into perspective and dubunk them as appropriate. Hopefully, it is a relief if any reader is at all concerned about nuclear bombs being used for this purpose.

    Your upcoming talk in Ocean Shores should be very interesting.

  2. Common sense dictates that this would be a bad idea on many levels.

  3. Axios is newer but is a legitimate media outlet. Some very quick research shows that Allsides gives them a media bias rating of Center. Trump has a long and well documented history of flat out lying, so his denial is pretty much meaningless.

  4. Nice blog from a true expert. Thanks again!:-)

  5. It should also be mentioned that hurricanes play a pivotal role in the total energy balance of the planet and monkeying with that could have unintended consequences elsewhere. I say leave em alone and work on environmental solutions that actually work.

  6. The best way I know to end hurricanes forever, as well as major weather in general, is simply to tip the planet upright so it's axis is no longer tilted. Of course, while the solution is simple, the method to go about it remains out of reach for now.

  7. Maybe this well help the average Joe understand human scale vs Earth scale and thus realize that panic about hurting the Earth is nonsense. And that human CO2 emissions are not the greatest input to the Earth's climate.

    1. You didn't read this part: "Reducing CO2 emissions is also a good idea, since increasing greenhouse gases may well enhance the destructiveness of the most powerful hurricanes."

  8. Axios has published the following article in defense of their original reporting:

  9. A thought to make you smile. According to chaos theory, the beat of the wing of a butterfly can result in a hurricane. If so, then if all of the people on the west coast blew together at the same time, could we move a hurricane?

  10. Dr. Mass, would you mind clarifying a Hurricane fact?

    Much of the climate research indicates a worsening of big storms under global warming. However, you have pointed out that the greater warming at the poles will hugely decrease the temperature gradient between the equator and the poles, thus reducing the "strength" of jet stream winds and weather. I believe you've discussed how Pacific Northwest storms will decrease in wind speed with a warmer atmosphere?

    The concept of worsening hurricanes, but reduced wind speeds, seem to be contradictory, or I'm just confused.

    Would you mind explaining why, how or "if" hurricane and big storm frequency and intensity will / will not increase under global warming?

  11. Development on the coast is fine or anywhere that is known for certain natural occurrences. As long as the local vernacular respects what nature is known to dish out. Also that folks who build in those areas are aware that their insurance carrier might have some doubts/reservations. Building a McMansion on a slab on grade 5 feet above sea level overlooking the Gulf of Mexico is dumb. Common sense really is a super power. Yet, its done all the time. It gets erased to the slab foundation by a hurricane, and gets rebuilt exactly the same after.

    Hurricane Dorian is going to tempt many to take a picture of their homes to hope the picture experiences the savage of nature while their actually property stays locked in a perpetual hurricane proof youth....

  12. To me this is a classic case where we should not mess with the system. Besides, trying to alter hurricanes is, as Cliff said, likely to have unintended consequences. Some parts of the world depend on them for rain. I say that if you choose to live in a hurricane prone area, you should live in a concrete house, preferably 50 feet or more above sea level. And we shouldn't have government insurance for those who break this rule. BTW, New Orleans (which is, but for the levees, below sea level) should have been built 100 miles upriver.

  13. @Russman
    You are confusing the processes by which those two types of storms operate. Mid-Latitude cyclones (those over Seattle) are reliant on temperature inequalities (jet stream). Hurricanes need very warm water, a moist atmosphere and low shear aloft. There is nothing contradictory in the statements.

  14. Forget nukes, let's use HAARP (again).


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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