On Nuking Hurricanes

It’s all over the internet and everyone’s re-posting it, but it’s a myth.  Best as I can tell, there’s zero evidence to the effect that Donald Trump ever seriously suggested we should use nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes.  Sorry, Cillizza; Axios may beat BuzzFeed as a source, but this is still not real news.

Which in a way is kind of a pity, because it’s not as insane as it sounds.

I know, right?  Not a high bar.  But there really is a fascinating history here, and it’s worth taking a peek.

Our story begins in the late 1950s, with a government program named “Operation Plowshares”.  The general concept was that clean nuclear detonations could be used for resource development and other engineering programs.  Over the next two decades, thirty test detonations were set up with this in mind, and some startling discoveries were made.  Eventually, ‘clean’ nukes were developed as a result of the tests, and some major new projects were envisioned.

We’re talking major industrial applications here, by the way.  One idea that was floated was using a nuke to create an instant harbor on the coast of Alaska.  Another involved a projected series of twenty detonations to carve an extension of I-40 through the Rockies.  And, yes, the idea of stopping a hurricane using nuclear blasts was also considered.

Bear in mind:  We look at nukes far differently today than we did fifty years ago.  Back then, everything was going to be nuclear, from cars to cornflakes.  Then they discovered fallout and Nevil Shute wrote his book and we were all terrified; then the comprehensive test ban treaties were signed and we all breathed a big non-radioactive sigh of relief.  Because suddenly nuclear detonations were a horror that could not possibly be tolerated, right up there with slavery and child sex rings.

(Note:  Half of American prostitutes are between 14 and 18; of them, the majority receive little to no pay and are unable to leave at will.  For further reading, I recommend the ethnographic study “Crack Pipe As Pimp”.)

But in the magical technology of the 1950s, anything was possible.  So we studied it.  Of course we studied it; why not?

A lot of press was given to the Reed Report, which was included in the Plowshares Symposium of 1959.  But research didn’t stop there; that’s just where it began.  Reed’s plan, later echoed by the head of the National Weather Service, involved a medium-level detonation in the eye of the storm such that the resulting shock wave would, in his words, “blow it out”.  According to Reed in a 2004 interview, the physics of his plan had never been questioned; his evaluation of this is… somewhat unique among scientists, to say the least.

This hasn’t ever been tried; the potential for catastrophic disaster is too high.  Most meteorologists view the energy released by even a high-yield nuclear blast as far too tiny to eliminate a storm — and it’s largely thermal energy, which would tend to add, not detract, from the ferocity of an ocean-based cyclone.  The other side of this argument is that a large enough pressure wave could theoretically wipe out the storm’s eye, but even if successful that raises another problem:  What would prevent a new eye from forming moments later, after the pressure wave collapses?

But these are questions, and thanks to the lack of vision of politicians in the 1960s who chose not to risk depopulating the East Coast in order to advance the cause of science, we’ve got no definite answers.  (Note:  This is sarcasm.)  We do, however, have several alternate proposals that would compete with the brute force method proposed by Reed, each of which passed basic feasibility studies in the early days of Plowshares.

  • The “instant harbor” detonations proposed under Project Chariot could have been used to redirect the force of a major storm by altering the physical geography of the coastline.  This would have been studied both far in advance of storms and immediately in their path.
  • A competing storms model was generated using the data from Project Gnome, on the theory that a massive steam release would act to brake, divert, or even drain any nearby hurricane.
  • Zero-fallout models resulting from the Rulison test were used as an argument for an extremely high-yield eye detonation.

Science is about asking questions and then trying to answer them.  These are legitimate questions that were posed and never answered, experiments that were designed but never executed.  The risks of testing have long been deemed too high, and who can argue with that?

But it’s worth remembering that the massive damage caused by an extremely powerful hurricane by far exceeds that of any nuclear blast humanity has yet conceived.  A single storm puts out more power than is used by all of human civilization over five years, and the energy of one hurricane season exceeds that of every nuclear detonation combined.  Comparatively, a few controlled blasts would seem on the face of it to be far less damaging.

Don’t mistake me:  I’m not actually recommending we do this.  I’m just saying that posing the question is not, in and of itself, actually nuts.  It’s science.

(End note:  Jonathan Swan, the Axios reporter who leaked Trump’s inquiry into this, has a solid track record.  His sources inside the White House have led him to half a dozen major scoops.  He stands by his story, and I don’t doubt he reported it just as it was told to him.  It’s his source for this one that I doubt.)

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