August 25, 2019

President Trump (Allegedly) Wants To Know If We Can Stop A Hurricane With Nuclear Bombs

Axios reported Sunday evening that Donald Trump, former host of The Apprentice and current President of the United States, reportedly asked Homeland Security officials on multiple occasions if we could "nuke" or simply bomb a hurricane to disrupt the storm and prevent it from posing a serious threat to land.

Okay.

[sharp breath]

Those who follow me on Twitter know that I am not inclined to give our forty-fifth president the benefit of the doubt. However, I am a benevolent partisan with the greatly stressed and likely clogged heart of an educator ready for summer vacation, so I'm willing to cede two points:

1) The desire to stop a hurricane before it hits land is a virtuous impulse, very good; and

2) Facetiously or not, lots of people ask this question! In fact, this is probably one of the most common weather-related questions I hear when a major hurricane is in the news.

Now, the latter of those two points is important. This is a question I enjoy hearing from an inquisitive reader. They're curious about the mechanics of a big storm and it's natural to wonder if the most powerful and destructive force ever created by humankind could take it down. I respect that.

That being said, I expect the President of the United States, the person who singularly controls no fewer than 6,000 nuclear weapons, to know why you can't detonate a nuclear bomb in the middle of a hurricane. But we've long since established that Donald Trump possesses unique knowledge of many things, so I'm not surprised this came up. (Though, to be fair, I expected it much sooner.)

Here's why you can't detonate a nuclear weapon in the middle of a hurricane.

A Nuclear Bomb Won't Stop A Hurricane

Hurricane Michael making landfall near Panama City, Florida, on October 10, 2018. || Gibson Ridge
Understanding why a nuclear bomb won't come close to stopping a hurricane requires a quick and admittedly simplified explanation of how tropical cyclones gather their strength.

Tropical cyclones—the term for the low-pressure systems we call tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes—are powered by thunderstorms packed in an eyewall that surrounds the center of the cyclone. A thunderstorm's updraft draws air away from the surface, leaving behind lower air pressure in its wake.

Stronger thunderstorms can draw vast amounts of air away from the surface and vent it into the upper atmosphere. This mass evacuation of air from the surface lowers the air pressure at the center of the storm, causing the cyclone to grow stronger. A stronger tropical cyclone can maintain stronger thunderstorms around the center, triggering a feedback process that results in a strengthening storm.

A tropical cyclone can continue this feedback process for as long as it remains in favorable conditions for development—warm water, ample moisture, and low wind shear. That's why tropical cyclones can fall apart in spectacular fashion once thunderstorms are disrupted by dry air or wind shear, or if the storm moves over land or cooler waters and thunderstorms lose their fuel source.

Detonating a nuclear bomb in or near a hurricane won't do anything to disrupt the energy sources that hurricanes need to survive. The force of a nuclear explosion—even many nuclear explosions—would pass right through the thunderstorms in the eyewall. You couldn't generate enough heat or shockwaves to rip the storm apart. Hurricanes are simply too big, and nuclear explosions too comparatively tiny, for such a mission to come close to success.

Let's say you went another route: what if, instead of trying to destroy the storm from within, you tried to alter the environment around it instead?

Water Temperature: It's not feasible to detonate enough bombs beneath the ocean surface to induce the type of upwelling needed to cool sea surface temperatures and rob a storm of the instability it needs to survive. Again...tiny bombs, big storm.

Atmospheric Moisture: Using nuclear bombs to lower the humidity around a hurricane wouldn't work, either. Like a truck driving through a puddle, the size of the hurricane would easily overcome any localized effects on humidity levels.

Wind Shear: The wind created by the explosion of a nuclear bomb is localized to the area right around ground zero. Even the well-timed atmospheric detonation of many bombs could never create the sustained wind shear necessary to disrupt the thunderstorms that power the storm.

It Would, However, Succeed In Spreading Radiation Everywhere


A nuclear bomb wouldn't stop a hurricane, but it would turn the hurricane's path into one long superfund site. The detonation of one or more nuclear bombs in the center of a storm would spread radiation everywhere. Getting hit by a hurricane is bad enough without worrying about radiation poisoning and cancer clusters for decades after the storm.

Radioactive fallout would contaminate the ocean beneath the storm. The winds within the storm would spread the fallout across a wide area along the track of the storm. Winds above the storm would vent radioactive fallout hundreds of miles outside the storm. Multiple nuclear detonations would generate even more fallout, making matters worse and increasing the odds of a mammoth, historic radioactive contamination event that would render vast swaths of the Atlantic basin uninhabitable.

We generally understand nuclear explosions to be a bad thing. Radiation is bad. No good comes from the detonation of a nuclear weapon, even when it's high in the sky and far away from land. This universally accepted fact is why humankind the world over has worked so hard (and so successfully!) to eliminate nuclear weapons testing.

I never expected to have to write these words together and in this order, but good golly, here we are: you can't stop a hurricane with a nuclear bomb, Mr. President, so please don't try.

(Top Photo: "Redwing" nuclear bomb test, Enewetak Atoll, July 8, 1956 || Dept. of Energy)


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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

1 comment:

  1. This almost felt like Randall Munroe's "What if" when you broke down the various energy sources and what a bomb would do.

    ReplyDelete