Congress recently introduced a bill to prohibit the President from using weapons to alter weather patterns. But can you tame a hurricane by nuking it off the map?
Blowing up a tropical storm sounds like a plot pulled straight from a dystopian science fiction novel, although I have to admit it's very on-brand for 2020. But is it even possible to tame a hurricane by nuking it? Can we really control the weather?
Before we dig into that question, let's define some types of storms.
What's the difference between a typhoon and a hurricane?
To understand whether or not we can control a storm, we need to understand what makes that storm so powerful.
Tropical cyclones are thunderstorms fueled by temperature differences in the layers of atmosphere that sit over tropical waters, which is to say waters within 25 degrees of the equator. When a tropical cyclone has winds that reach speeds of 39 miles per hour (that’s about 17 meters per second), the storm is officially upgraded to a tropical storm and the World Meteorological Organization gives it a name.
If those winds reach speeds over 74 miles per hour, the tropical storm is upgraded again. If it forms in the Atlantic or East Pacific, it’s called a hurricane. If it grows out of the Northern West Pacific, it’s called a typhoon. The Saffir-Simpson scale then further denotes the storm’s strength based on its wind speed: a category 5 hurricane, for example, is the strongest hurricane, with wind speeds reaching over 157 mph. Category 3-5 hurricanes are classified as "major," and they're capable of causing catastrophic damage.
A single hurricane can release 200 times the electrical generating capacity of the entire world.
Hurricanes produce an incredible amount of energy. The Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory—that’s a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States—estimates that a single hurricane can release 200 times the electrical generating capacity of the entire world.
So where does all this energy come from? The high-speed winds would seem an obvious answer, and they do stir up a significant amount of kinetic energy. Assuming the storm has winds rushing around at 90 mph and spread out over a 60-kilometer radius, that hurricane could generate on the order of 1.5 trillion watts of energy.
That’s huge! But most of the storm’s energy actually comes from the latent heat of condensation—the heat released when water vapor in the atmosphere condenses to form raindrops. Hurricanes produce an average of 1.5 centimeters of rain in a day (or 0.6 inches of rain), which can add up to more than 2 x 1016 cubic centimeters (that’s a 2 with 16 zeros) of rainwater. So even if only a bit of energy is released per drop, it all adds up. An average hurricane’s production of rainwater would lead to the release of 5.2 x 1019 Joules per day, which is 600 trillion watts.
Can we nuke a hurricane?
In an earlier episode, we discussed some of the factors that make it so hard to predict the next tropical storm. For starters, our predictive models are complex and require assumptions of initial conditions that we don’t always know. Much of our storm tracking information comes from Hurricane Hunters, pilots from the US Air Force and NOAA who fly directly into these storms to measure their pressure and wind speed at different locations.
Apparently, enough people ask if they can ride along on Hurrican Hunter flights that the NOAA has an answer on their Frequently Asked Questions page—it’s a no.
So, if we can’t predict these storms, can we control them?
As NOAA puts it, imagining that we could blow up such a storm, even with a nuke, “fails to appreciate the size and power of a tropical cyclone.” That sounds pretty final to me, but let’s take a look at the numbers.
Nukes are no match for the average hurricane, which releases energy at roughly the rate of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb being detonated every 20 minutes.
The Hiroshima bomb released 6.3 x 1013 Joules (or the equivalent of 15,000 tons) of TNT. Modern nuclear bombs are several orders of magnitude more powerful, with some even in the megatons of TNT range. But these nukes are still no match for the average hurricane, which releases energy at roughly the rate of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb being detonated every 20 minutes.
And once that nuke is detonated? You have now sent the associated nuclear fallout—residual radioactive material—swirling around in 40 mph winds.
Since hurricanes are fueled by warm ocean water, other proposals for how to control them have included towing icebergs to the Atlantic to allow for large-scale cooling of the water. But a hurricane's core (or its eye) can cover about 2,000 square miles of ocean. As it moves, that same hurricane will blow over close to 7,200 square miles in a day.
But of course, we can’t predict a hurricane or typhoon's course with perfect precision. For the water-cooling technique to work, we would have to cool three to four times that 2,000 square mile area just to be sure to catch it. That’s a lot of icebergs for only one day of one storm. On top of that steep requirement, we also need to consider the impact on the ecosystems in both the Atlantic and the source of the iceberg, the Arctic, that arises from such large scale temperature changes.
Instead, we are best served by minimizing the destruction wrought by hurricanes through preparedness measures like building safer buildings and having warning systems in place that give people as much time as possible to react. The conditions for forming a hurricane are most easily met between the months of June and November. So if you live in an area where hurricanes are known to make landfall, now might be a great time to put together your emergency hurricane preparedness kit.