The US President is alleged (he vehemently denies it) to have suggested on more than one occasion that we use nuclear weapons to disrupt hurricanes. This has received a lot of attention in global news sources the last 24 hours; as with virtually all issues in the US what people think generally breaks on tribal (political party) lines. I won’t take sides on that aspect. Many people have a gut reaction one way or another to the substance of the idea, but there is a long history to this idea, as this 2016 (pre-Trump) National Geographic article shows. In fact, I can’t recall a lecture on weather, climate, or hurricanes that I’ve given to the general public where it didn’t come up. So what is the reality of using a nuke specifically, or other modifications generally?
Trying to diminish the power of hurricanes has been around since at least the 1940’s. The first practical project was to use cloud seeding as part of Project Cirrus in 1947, then more systematically in Project Stormfury in the 1960’s. The 1947 Project Cirrus illustrated a key problem: during the seeding process the storm, which had been headed out to sea, turned around and made landfall near Savannah, Georgia. America being America, lawsuits were started, but were ultimately thrown out. Later attempts had mixed results, but the consensus was that the project was a “successful failure”: a failure, in that hurricane modification didn’t work, but a success in that it greatly improved our understanding of hurricanes.
The idea of using nukes also dates back to the late 50’s and early 1960’s, and was suggested by no less than the head of the US Weather Bureau (predecessor of the National Weather Service) in 1961. The idea is that the thermal effects of the detonation would disrupt the thermodynamics and circulation of the storm. In one sense it’s not a completely insane idea; megaton class nuclear weapons have a dramatic impact on the atmosphere. Some argue (like in the NOAA page devoted to the question) that because a mature hurricane dissipates on the order of a megaton nuclear blast of energy per minute a nuke is pointless. I think that misses the point somewhat because a megaton class blast in the eye or eyewall would have disruptions to the convective processes far out of proportion to the average energy. Unfortunately that discussion edges into classified modeling and data, and besides misses the point that you can’t use a nuke in a hurricane for one very important reason that was overlooked or dismissed in the discussions of the early 1960’s.
Of course, bottom line is that even if it “worked”, it’s pretty dumb to nuke a hurricane due to one key side effect of nuclear weapons: radioactive fallout. Before you laugh too much at that, recall that in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s we were just coming to terms with the long term radiation impacts of nuclear weapons, and many of the worst effects were still classified and suppressed to reduce the fear of nuclear power. At the time Project Plowshare was proposing all kinds of uses that, today, we would call “crazy” like widening the Panama Canal (this as late as 1970) or creating harbors. Twenty-two bombs were even seriously proposed to create a road cut through the Bristol Mountains to facilitate Interstate 40!
So while folks are making a lot of political hay over this because of the latest source of the idea, it’s not a new idea, and wasn’t considered all that crazy maybe as little as 40 years ago. For a lay person with minimal understanding of science, I can see how it might seem an attractive idea. There are lots of very bad, scientifically unsound ideas and the policies they drive floating around across the political spectrum. It does highlight a key problem, that major world leaders and most of the people they lead often don’t have a very sound understanding of science and engineering that are so vital to our modern world. (Or economics. Or …) So I’m not at all surprised that a President (especially this one) asked the question. I just hope his advisers took the time to explain to him why it’s not a great idea, rather than do what I think many advisers to world leaders do all too often: just nod and say “we’ll look into it.”