Hurricanes: Can’t we just nuke them? (Spoiler alert: No)

NOAA has your answer

A damaged home and streets littered with debris are seen after Hurricane Irma passed through the area on Sept. 13, 2017 in Ramrod Key, Florida (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).
A damaged home and streets littered with debris are seen after Hurricane Irma passed through the area on Sept. 13, 2017 in Ramrod Key, Florida (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

We’re still in the thick of hurricane season, and areas that experience these threats have already seen a good handful of storms or close calls. In fact, Subtropical Storm Alpha received its Greek letter name on Sept. 18, marking only the second time the Greek alphabet has been used to name storms.

Hurricane Delta slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula early Wednesday as a Category 2 storm, and it now poses a threat to the U.S.

So, why do we have to deal with hurricanes at all?

Isn’t there a better way to take control, given that it’s 2020? An article published in recent years on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website asked, “Why don’t we try to destroy tropical cyclones by nuking them?”

... Because it’s that simple, right?

“During each hurricane season, there always appear (to be) suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms,” writes contributor Chris Landsea, of the National Hurricane Center. “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 trade winds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems. Needless to say, this is not a good idea.”

Apparently, we needed an expert to tell us that this is not a feasible plan.

It might seem tempting, if you haven’t really looked into the issue, to take matters into our own hands.

These hurricanes cost a fortune.

It’s estimated that Hurricane Harvey had total costs of $125 billion —second only to Hurricane Katrina in the period of record, which had an approximate cost of $161 billion, according to the NOAA.

And again, sometimes it feels like we’re living in the future. It’s 2020, where we can connect with anyone and everyone in just a matter of minutes through social media. We can get our groceries delivered to our doorstep. We’ve seen incredible medical breakthroughs.

Still, the answer is no, we cannot “nuke” tropical cyclones.

Here’s why not, according to Landsea: “The main difficulty with using explosives to modify hurricanes is the amount of energy required. A fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20x1013 watts, and converts less than 10 percent of the heat into the mechanical energy of the wind. The heat release is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. According to the 1993 World Almanac, the entire human race used energy at a rate of 1,013 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20 percent of the power of a hurricane.

“If we think about mechanical energy, the energy at humanity's disposal is closer to the storm's, but the task of focusing even half of the energy on a spot in the middle of a remote ocean would still be formidable. Brute force interference with hurricanes doesn't seem promising.”

Does that make sense? (Just nod your head if you’re not a science-type person).

In short, nuking a storm would not be an effective hurricane modification technique.

“In addition, an explosive, even a nuclear explosive, produces a shock wave, or pulse of high pressure, that propagates away from the site of the explosion somewhat faster than the speed of sound,” Landsea continued. “Such an event doesn't raise the barometric pressure after the shock has passed because barometric pressure in the atmosphere reflects the weight of the air above the ground. For normal atmospheric pressure, there are about ten metric tons (1,000 kilograms per ton) of air bearing down on each square meter of surface. In the strongest hurricanes, there are nine. To change a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane, you would have to add about a half-ton of air for each square meter inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion tons for a 20 km radius eye.”

It's difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around, the scientist said.

Finally, it’s pretty impractical to think that we could attack weak tropical waves or depressions before they have a chance to grow into hurricanes.

About 80 of these disturbances form every year in the Atlantic basin, but only about five become hurricanes in a typical year, Landsea pointed out, meaning, there is no way to tell ahead of time which will develop.

“If the energy released in a tropical disturbance were only 10 percent of that released in a hurricane, it's still a lot of power, so that the hurricane police would need to dim the whole world's lights many times a year,” the article concludes.

Much like every other weather event, we just need to let nature run its course -- no matter how frustrating or costly that might be.

So if your friend asks next week, “Why don’t we just nuke these things?,” now you know the answer.

*This story was originally published in 2017 but updated in September 2020.

About the Author:

Michelle is the Managing Editor of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which writes for all of the company's news websites.