As the Caribbean prepared for Tropical Storm Dorian and its potential to reach hurricane-strength, a news report by Axios based on anonymous sources claimed that President Donald Trump has repeatedly asked federal officials to explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes.
For his part Trump disputed the story, calling it “ridiculous.”
For our part, we can’t fact-check whether or not Trump considered such a strategy since the claim is based on anonymous sources. But we can explain the science behind why nuclear bombs can’t slow down storms.
Bombs won’t stop hurricanes
The question about whether the government could use nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes has come up so frequently that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote a brief explainer about it.
The basic theory is this: The heat and energy given off by a nuclear bomb would disrupt the composition of the hurricane and its potentially devastating buzz-sawing motion.
But NOAA says it wouldn’t work. Why?
A bomb can’t produce enough energy to destroy a hurricane.
Kerry Emanuel, an MIT meteorologist and climate scientist, said the idea was literally to disrupt the circulation of a hurricane. But there wasn’t evidence it would work.
“The magnitude of the power that is generated by hurricanes is so large you would not disrupt it with a bomb very much or for very long,” he said. “Probably what you would end up with is a radioactive hurricane, which would make it worse.”
University of Florida professor Corene J. Matyas said that a hurricane produces hundreds of times more energy through latent heat release to build its clouds and produce rainfall than it does producing horizontal winds.
“So if you attempted to ‘offset’ a hurricane’s energy, most of your effort would go into reducing its cloud fields and very little would be used to change its wind speed,” she said.
The idea that a bomb could disperse a storm is a gross underestimation of how powerful the storms are in relations to any bomb that could be thrown at it. Also, it would lead to unintended consequences from radiation in the ocean and air that would be spread over a large area.
Ideas of modifying weather have persisted
The idea of bombing to slow down or stop a hurricane has circulated for decades.
Florida government officials floated the idea in 1945, wrote Gary Mormino, University of South Florida emeritus professor in the book Land of Sunshine: State of Dreams: A social history of Modern Florida.
In August 1945, the Lee County Commission offered the U.S. government 7,500 acres “as a base for the atomic bombing of hurricanes,” an Associated Press article in the Miami Herald stated.
Miami Beach Mayor Herbert Frink urged President Harry Truman at the time to hurl a weapon against an approaching hurricane.
In 1950, Grady Norton, chief weather forecaster at the Miami bureau, told the Fort Lauderdale Daily News that a high government official in Washington had suggested the idea of bombing a hurricane.
Mentioning the Korean War, Norton said, “This is no time to waste bombs on hurricanes.”
Although Norton rejected the idea, National Geographic found that there was a time when government scientists and officials were considering the idea of bombing hurricanes.
Francis W. Reichelderfer, the head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, said in a speech to the National Press Club in 1961 that scientists hoped to bomb a storm during the next two or three years. But the idea didn’t seem very far along — he said that the government wouldn’t use bombs until it knew about side effects and that the use of conventional explosives was in the “think stage.”
National Geographic wrote that Jack W. Reed, a meteorologist at Sandia Laboratory, had written a paper in the 1950s speculating that a submarine could detonate nuclear missiles at the hurricane. The warm air would be replaced by colder air and weaken the storm.
From the mid 1960s through the early 1980s, NOAA pursued Project STORMFURY, an experimental program to research hurricane modification. The general strategy was to reduce the intensity of the storm by cloud seeding, which involves introducing a substance into clouds to cause precipitation.
But the idea fizzled out as scientists determined that it had little prospect of success.
Some scientists and experts in technology including Bill Gates have continued to pursue hurricane control strategies. But scientists say it’s better for people to focus on storm preparation and smart building strategies.
“There is the massive possibility of unintended consequences associated with any modifications,” said Judith Curry, professor emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “For example, the modifications may result in a different track and landfall locations. The bottom line is that we need to let these massive storms take their course. Improved forecasts are providing plenty of warning time. The challenge is to develop plans to minimize damage, power outages, injuries and loss of life.”