When nature declares war, who says that humanity shouldn’t fight back?
It’s an appealing thought, especially when, during hurricane season, we're annually reminded of the immense destruction wrought by these storms.
And it’s probably why, every year for the past six decades, government agencies have received missives from concerned citizens, urging preemptive attacks against hurricanes using nuclear weapons.
“Needless to say, this is not a good idea,” says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in what is, arguably, one of the most succinct understatements on record.
Yet because the “nuke a hurricane” myth won’t die, NOAA maintains a web page exclusively devoted to debunking this proposal. (Similarly, the U.S. Geological Survey has an online report debunking divining rods and water dowsing. It’s not always easy being a government scientist.)
To be fair, though, there was a time when scientists and government agencies were themselves seriously considering the nuclear option. 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 its own nuclear arsenal “until we know what we’re doing.”)
“Could Hurricane Carla have been broken up, or greatly modified, or its course turned back to sea, by nuclear bombs?,” asked an editorial in the Longview Daily News. “The suggestion that man-made explosions may effect [sic] hurricanes cannot be dismissed with the same degree of certainty on the basis of energy comparisons as was possible with earlier atomic weapons.”
In other words, America now had the hydrogen bomb, which was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Japan. Couldn't this energy be unleashed as a hurricane killer?
Jack W. Reed, a meteorologist at Sandia Laboratory, thought so. In fact, he came up with the idea while studying the atmospheric effects produced by America’s first detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which had lifted a massive column of air more than 20 miles into the sky.
Reed had the opportunity to present his research at various conferences, notably the 1959 symposium on the Plowshare Program—a government initiative to develop “peaceful” uses for nuclear weapons in science and industry. (Some of the most infamous Plowshare proposals included plans to use nukes to create an instant harbor on the coast of Alaska and to excavate a new Panama Canal.)
In his paper, Reed speculated that a submarine could travel underwater to penetrate the eye of a hurricane, where it would launch and detonate one or more nuclear missiles. The ensuing explosion would loft most of the relatively warm air in the hurricane's eye high above the storm into the stratosphere. The warm air would then be replaced by colder, denser air—reducing the wind speed and weakening the storm.
Reed calculated that a 20 megaton explosion could slow a storm with 100-knot peak winds to 50 knots.
But Reed didn’t find any takers for his idea. The research would require setting off multiple nukes at several million dollars a pop. Government officials expressed concern that bombing hurricanes would conflict with U.S. efforts to end atmospheric nuclear tests.
And, there’s also the slight problem that—in the words of Robert Nelson, a physicist who studies nuclear weapons—“It’s just wacky.”
For starters, as NOAA observes, there’s the issue of radioactive fallout, which would “fairly quickly move with the trade winds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems.”
Also, it wouldn’t work. The key obstacle is the amount of energy required. The heat release from a hurricane is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes, NOAA calculates. In order to shrink a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane, you would have to add about a half ton of air for each square yard inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion (500,000,000) tons for an eye 25 miles in diameter. “It’s difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around,” NOAA says.
Today, international law prohibits us from even trying. The Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, signed and ratified by the United States in 1990, limits the yield of weapons for non-military purposes to 150 kilotons—a formal acknowledgement that you can’t fight Mother Nature, especially with nukes.