Public To Scientists: Why Can't We Just Nuke These Hurricanes?

Irma, seen here as a Category 5 storm barrelling down on Florida. Randy Bresnik/NASA

Right now, law enforcement officials are issuing warnings to Floridians who are, perhaps jokingly, shooting at Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm in recorded history. This is obviously ridiculous – bullets won’t stop Mother Nature’s swirling winds – but what about a nuclear weapon?

Most of you will immediately see the problem with firing a nuclear warhead at a hurricane, but as it so happens, plenty of the public don’t think it’s such a bad idea after all. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been asked why they haven’t nuked a hurricane so much that they’ve actually answered the question.

“During each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms,” their FAQ section explains.

“Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the storm, this approach neglects the problem that the released radioactive fallout would fairly quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems.

“Needless to say, this is not a good idea.”

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Essentially, a radioactive hurricane is a lot worse than a conventional one. That’s pretty obvious, but NOAA – being the brilliant conglomeration of geeks it is – actually goes a lot further than this. Assuming you don’t care about irradiating, say, most of Texas or Florida, would a nuclear explosion actually make any difference?

After all, the average hurricane is insanely energetic. As we’ve previously reported, they release about 1.5 trillion joules via winds per second, which is nothing compared to the 600 trillion joules per second they release through cloud/rain formation. If one kept this up for 24 hours, they’d release the equivalent of 824,914 “Little Boy” atomic bombs.

By NOAA’s calculations, hurricanes can replicate “the heat release equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes.” They imply that a nuclear weapon is too weak to actually cause any sort of major change in terms of the passage of a hurricane.

Hurricanes are major centers of low pressure air, so in theory, increasing the air pressure will nullify them. NOAA notes that the shockwave produced by a nuclear warhead is indeed a high-pressure outburst, but this doesn’t mean that it’s enough to downgrade a hurricane from a high category to a lower one.

Apart from the fact that this high-pressure wave is short-lived, there’s no way a single nuke could move hundreds of millions of tonnes of air to actually kill off a hurricane.

So why don’t we just nuke the far weaker tropical depressions that eventually turn into hurricanes? Well, apart from the fact that we don’t really want to irradiate large swathes of the atmosphere or land, and apart from the fact that only 6 percent of depressions turn into hurricanes, they’re still so energetic that nukes wouldn’t make a difference.

Perhaps fortunately, it looks like a clear-cut case: Nuclear weapons would be utterly useless against hurricanes. They may feel like remarkable instruments of power – and indeed, they are when used against civilizations – but to nature, they’re nothing more than a firecracker.

Katia (l), Irma (c) and Jose (r) - three hurricanes captured by NASA in one remarkable image. NASA

If you really want to start mitigating against hurricanes, then the best thing to do would be to do something about climate change. Although complex, it’s clear that warmer ocean waters and warmer masses of air directly lead to worse precipitation and floods during hurricanes.

Before you ask – no, you cannot nuke climate change into submission either.

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