Tropical cyclones, known in the Atlantic as hurricanes, are among the most destructive phenomena in nature’s arsenal, and much more common than threats like major volcanic eruptions or tsunamis. Consequently, it’s natural to contemplate ideas to artificially render them harmless. However, modeling of one such idea shows just how impractical it is, with implications for alternative schemes.
Perhaps the most famous proposal to tackle hurricanes came in 2019 when it leaked then President Trump repeatedly suggested using nuclear bombs to divert threats to the American east coast. Most people spotted the problem that feeding lethal amounts of radiation into a vast churning vortex where it could end up who knows where might be less than ideal. Meteorologists also pointed out it simply wouldn’t work.
Hurricanes feed off warm waters and weaken once they hit land or cooler parts of the ocean. In light of this, some have suggested artificial ocean cooling as a way to lessen their devastation. Stirring up cool water from great depths before a hurricane arrives lacks the disastrous consequences of using deadly weapons. Nevertheless, a paper in Communications Earth and Environment reveals it’s similarly impractical.
Dr James Hlywiak and Professor David Nolan of the University of Miami modeled the effects of cooling 21,000 cubic kilometers (5,000 cubic miles) of water by 2°C (1.98°F) before a hurricane passed over. That’s 260,000 km2 (100,400 square miles) to a depth of 80 meters (260 feet), which is the layer hurricanes draw their power from. Although the lower temperatures did weaken simulated hurricanes somewhat, it was only by 15 percent under ideal conditions.
That might sound worth it to residents of cities that have suffered tremendous damage from hurricane winds, rainfall, and storm surges. However, Hlywiak and Nolan concluded it would involve pulling 100 times more energy out of the upper ocean than the United States consumes in a year.
“The main result from our study is that massive amounts of artificially cooled water would be needed for only a modest weakening in hurricane intensity before landfall,” Hlywiak said in a statement. “Plus weakening the intensity by marginal amounts doesn’t necessarily mean that the likelihood for inland damages and safety risks would decrease as well.”
“Any amount of weakening before landfall is a good thing,” Hlywiak added, but improving infrastructure and evacuation procedures yields benefits orders of magnitude higher.
Some readers may be thinking “I could have told them that, where’s my research grant?” but Nolan noted that “various ideas for hurricane modification appear often in popular media and are even submitted for patents.” For two decades the United States even had a research program into related ideas. Having a clear refutation that can be pointed to in future might improve the focus on solutions that actually work.
Slightly more plausible suggestions involve encouraging hurricanes to turn so they stay at sea, or hit less populated land areas. Conspiracy theorists sometimes claim this is already happening, with governments already choosing which cities should take the hit.
If this really happened, the downstream consequences could be disastrous: small nations might not take too kindly to having larger neighbors diverting hurricanes in their direction, even if it reduced overall death rates. For that reason, it’s probably fortunate similar problems to those Hlywiak found arise. Hurricanes involve such immense amounts of energy that changing their course is beyond our powers now, and for a very long time to come. The same is likely true for many other ideas that fall under the umbrella of geoengineering.
The effects of Global Heating on hurricanes are still debated. Increasing sea surface temperatures certainly give them more power, but a hotter world also probably means more wind shear, which disrupts their formation. The balance between these is hard to assess, but not letting the oceans get so hot in the first place is certainly prudent.