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?

Bikini Atoll Nuclear Weapons Test, 1946.

Atomic Bomb Test, by SDASM Archives
on Flickr (Licensed under Creative Commons)

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

The DeLorean from Back to the Future, by Ian Aberle
on Flickr (Licensed under Creative Commons)

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!

Image of Typhoon Haiyan taken from the ISS

International Space Station Image of Haiyan, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
on Flickr (Licensed under Creative Commons)

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.

6 Responses to “Why can’t we just nuke hurricanes?”

  1. gtolhurst says:

    I came across a really nice video which summarises what would happen if it was attempted. Apparently nuking hurricanes has been an idea for as long as nuclear bombs have been around

  2. Matt says:

    Also my back to the future reference would be even more of a stretch if I used Km/h, so give a guy a little slack 🙂

  3. Matt says:

    Thanks for the toilet fact checking everyone – it’s true that the Coriolis effect isn’t the leading order contributor to toilet flush rotation (though to say that it has no effect is equally false – merely an insignificant one compared to the jets!). My attempt at a Simpsons reference was called out!

    Apologies for misrepresenting the words of the President – as you say I used it as a topical political segue into the discussion, as to me it seemed like an out there yet plausible suggestion which gave me cause to look into the science of it.

    Apologies for use of the commonly understood imperial system. For reference, 74 miles per hour corresponds to 33.081 metres per second, or 1.1 x 10^-7 times the speed of light if you prefer natural units 😉

  4. LJM says:

    Cool to see some interesting science introduced via some topical political story!

    BUT! As much as I love to ridicule orange cheeto man etc etc, the quote is from an anonymous source and Trump denies having said it, make the *allegation* unproven (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/trump-nuke-hurricane) so the article is a little misleading in that regard.

  5. Kaih Mitchell says:

    #fakenews The Coriolis effect isn’t strong enough to determine the direction of your toilet flush, the shape of the bowl and direction of water jets are far more significant https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/rotation-earth-toilet-baseball2.htm
    That being said, it seems pretty reasonable that a bomb couldn’t stop a cyclone

  6. Genevieve Tolhurst says:

    What a fun topic! I like using an absurd example to start a discussion!

    A couple of things:
    – the Coriolis force does NOT act on toilets flushes. The flow of a toilet is too small and too fast for the rotation of the Earth to influence it
    – metric speeds please, not miles per hour