August 26th, 2019 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.
There is a story going around that President Trump once suggested using nuclear weapons to weaken hurricanes before they hit land. While he has denied it, the idea has actually been batted around for years.
A less radioactive idea, called Project Stormfury, was carried out by the U.S. Government for about twenty years starting in the early 1960s. Aircraft seeded hurricane clouds with silver iodide in an attempt to strengthen the outer portions of the storm in hopes of weakening the intense storm core.
The project was a failure because it was learned that hurricanes already efficiently convert the available cloud water to precipitation anyway, throughout the storm. The hurricane doesn’t respond to seeding with silver iodide.
What Fuels a Hurricane?
I’ve found that there is a general lack of appreciation of just how much energy nature uses in weather systems. Hurricanes are, of course, an example of an accumulation of a lot of energy that is organized into a single weather system with dramatic effects.
That energy was accumulated over many sunny days and weeks as huge expanses of ocean soaked up tropical sunshine and warmed. The hurricane circulation then draws upon that pent-up energy. The tropical oceans nearly everywhere have the energy required to fuel a hurricane; what is usually missing is an atmospheric disturbance with low wind shear throughout the depth of the troposphere so that the heat produced by rain clouds isn’t just blown away rather than concentrated into a small geographic area.
How About Nuking that Hurricane?
Let’s use the example of the B83 nuclear weapon, which is considered “the most modern nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal“. The bomb has an energy yield of 1.2 megatons of TNT.
The average hurricane releases that much energy every 10 seconds.
So, the hurricane probably wouldn’t care that much about a brief nuclear kick in the shins. (The idea of spreading all of that radioactivity would not go over very well with the public, either.)
But let’s say we had hundreds or even thousands of megaton-class weapons that were cheap and did not produce dangerous radiation. What could be done to weaken a hurricane?
The most fundamental problem with trying to weaken a hurricane is that hurricanes are driven by heat release, and these bombs would just add more heat to the storm, potentially making it worse. As mentioned above, in a hurricane, water vapor condenses into clouds and rain, releasing latent heat, which warms the troposphere and causes intense low pressure at the surface, leading to strong surface winds.
I suspect the idea would be to release the bomb energy in portions of the storm that could — theoretically — disrupt the inner core (the eyewall) where most of the hurricane damage occurs. But adding large amounts of heat energy could result in unforeseen strengthening of the core hours later. Who knows? It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.