COMMENTARY

Why can’t we nuke hurricanes?

Every meteorologist I know has been asked that question, and more than once. To some of you, that may seem like a dumb question. But I can see why many would wonder why we couldn’t harness the tremendous power of a H-bomb to suppress the power of a hurricane. Now that hurricane season has begun, that question will be raised again in some quarters. (In fact, there is something brewing in the Bay of Campeche).

In doing a little research to refresh my memory on the math and physics on this issue, I did run across one shocker. This idea was seriously considered during my childhood by the director of what was then called the U.S. Weather Bureau. As reported by National Geographic, “In a speech delivered at the National Press Club on October 11, 1961, Francis W. Riechelderfer, the head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, said he could 'imagine the possibility someday of exploding a nuclear bomb on a hurricane far at sea.' ” (Although, comfortingly, Riechelderfer added that the Weather Bureau would not begin acquiring a nuclear arsenal “until we know what we’re doing.”)” Riechelderfer, true enough, came from an era in which the science of meteorology was still somewhat more primitive. Still, I was amazed he didn’t check out some of the numbers and consequences.

The question is raised often enough that NOAA maintains a web page explaining why this idea is a no-go. It’s also very interesting to find this idea as recently as 1999 had a proponent in a Sandia National Laboratory meteorologist with a more advanced education than Riechelderfer. Jack Reed proposed using submarine-launched nuclear-tipped missiles beneath a hurricane eye. Because H-bombs lift a towering mass of warm air up to 20 miles, he hypothesized the warm air in thermonuclear detonations would be replaced by cooler, denser air at the surface, weakening the convective process fueling the hurricane. He calculated 20 megatons would probably take a Category 5 down to a Category 2. I decided to do a little math of my own. One of the more advanced variants of the Trident missile carried by our subs can carry up to 14 warheads of 100 kilotons each. Yes, each warhead is an H bomb, but that’s only 1400 kilotons per missile. The Ohio class Trident subs carry 24 ICBMs. About 15-16 multiple warhead ICBMs would have to be launched to reach Reed’s megatonnage estimate.

That’s a lot of thermonuclear explosions. Apart from violating the nuclear test ban treaty, let’s examine some of the other problems with the whole idea. Of course, we can start with the radiation produced by detonating more than 200 H bombs at the same time. The thought of highly radioactive bomb particulates and water droplets being whipped around in the atmosphere doesn’t sound like a bright idea. Even if the detonations succeeded in weakening the hurricane, such a storm could still approach land carrying dangerous radioactive particles and droplets.

The basic idea behind this hypothesis, safety issues aside, is fatally flawed. Chris Landsea (that’s his real name), a senior researcher at the National Hurricane Center, has done some of the energy math. Hurricanes get much of their energy from warm ocean waters. The condensation of water vapor in the hurricane releases lots of heat into the atmosphere. A fully developed hurricane, he says, releases 50+ terawatts of heat energy, and only 1% of that is converted to wind. As Landsea told LiveScience, the heat release in such a hurricane is the equivalent of a 10 megaton bomb every 20 minutes. He went on to calculate the entire human race used only 1/3 of that amount of energy in an entire year. LiveScience’s technical writer Rachel Kaufman put it succinctly: “So bombing a hurricane might be about as effective as trying to stop a speeding Buick with a feather.”

Landsea also speculated there is some chance the heat released from thermonuclear explosions might even strengthen a hurricane.

One might ask why this might not work with weaker tropical depressions and disturbances. In an average year, Landsea states, there are 80 such disturbances in the Atlantic basin, and only a few become hurricanes. Apart from the potentially deadly environmental issues, that would be a wild guessing game trying to figure out which tropical disturbances to target with big time thermonuclear ordinance.

There had been one type of realistic geoengineering attempted for more than a decade in the government’s Project Stormfury. General Electric’s Vincent Schaefer (later a SUNY Albany meteorology professor) was the primary pioneer in cloud seeding. Particles of silver iodide when dropped into super-cooled water vapor (water vapor that remains liquid even in minus-40 degree air due to a lack of nuclei) provides the nuclei so that condensation of the vapor can begin. The hypothesis was that cloud seeding might condense enough super-cooled water vapor at upper levels of a hurricane to “force” a hurricane to produce much more rain and outrun its fuel supply over open waters away from land. The physics behind this hypothesis, unlike the nuclear bomb fantasies, had merit. The fatal flaw, in many years of repeated attempts far out to sea, turned out to be the lack of enough super-cooled water vapor in hurricanes to fuel the rainout process. Tropical cyclones have warm core circulations, and it became known after repeated attempts they don’t carry nearly as much super-cooled water vapor as a cold core nontropical cyclone.

So now you know why it’s a really dumb idea to nuke hurricanes.

We’ll deal with tornadoes another time.

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