Why can’t we just nuke hurricanes?
“They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they’re moving across the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane and it disrupts it.”
– President Donald Trump, Aug 26 2019. See the original article here.
Hurricanes are some of the most powerful and devastating natural phenomena on our planet, but to paraphrase President Trump, ‘why can’t we just nuke them’?
Let us put aside the pesky rational considerations of introducing nuclear fallout into the intercontinental tradewinds and consider the pure physical plausibility of the proposal.
At face value, the question is a logical one. Hurricanes are just big swirly bits of wind (apologies for my scientific jargon), and so if I make a bigger source of wind – like, say, a thermonuclear explosion – then why can’t I just blow out the swirly bit?
To answer this question, we need a slightly more technical understanding of the hurricane than just a big swirly bit of wind.
Technically speaking, a hurricane starts off as several simultaneous thunderstorms which are all rotating around a region of low atmospheric pressure called a tropical depression. If such a system forms over warm tropical waters, the heat of the water causes vapour to rise in the central low-pressure region. This adds more water to the clouds, making them bigger.
As this vapour rises it also rotates due to the Coriolis effect – the vapour rotates to balance the rotation of the earth in the same way that toilets flush in different directions depending on whether you’re in the Northern or Southern hemisphere. This rotation makes the clouds spin faster and faster, until you have a storm system which is rotating at speeds upwards of 74 miles per hour.
This is remarkably close to the 88 miles per hour required to send Doc Brown’s DeLorean back to the future. However even the mighty DeLorean (which runs on a measly 1.21 Gigawatts) is no match for a hurricane, as a hurricane rotates with an energy of around 2000 Gigawatts, which would have been enough energy to power the entire planet in 1993.
A hurricane outputs over 1500x more energy than it takes
to power the DeLorean from Back to the Future
To counteract this immense rotational energy, we would need to harness the energy of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb every two minutes, and somehow focus all of this energy into opposing the hurricane’s rotation. Trying to stop a hurricane using brute force is next to impossible with the tools we have at our disposal.
Hurricanes may only be a swirly bits of wind, but we underestimated how truly swirly they are.
If we can’t fight a hurricane directly, why not treat it like a cheap horror villain and try and destroy the source of its power? If we could somehow counteract the low-pressure system in the eye of the storm, we could stop the hurricane from generating its rotational energy!
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. In order to increase the atmospheric pressure enough to reduce a Category 5 hurricane to a Category 2, you would need to add about half a tonne of air to each square metre inside the eye of the hurricane. For a storm where the eye is 25 miles across, this corresponds to adding over half a billion tonnes of air on top of the system.
This is an effect you just can’t replicate with a bomb. It’s true that bombs create an intense high-pressure wave in the form of a shockwave, but the shockwave propagates out through the air at the speed of sound, and it doesn’t have any permanent effect on atmospheric pressure in the region.
Unfortunately for President Trump, trying to blow out a hurricane with a bomb is like trying to stop a tidal wave with a garden hose. It may seem like a good excuse to brag about how big your hose is, but you’re never going to make any actual contribution to solving the problem.