Trump Has Repeatedly Asked Advisers Why We Can’t Just Nuke Hurricanes
President Trump continues to have an odd obsession with nuclear weapons.
Axios reports that President Trump has apparently asked his advisers why the United States can’t simply use nuclear weapons to disrupt hurricanes headed toward the United States:
President Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States, according to sources who have heard the president’s private remarks and been briefed on a National Security Council memorandum that recorded those comments.
Behind the scenes: During one hurricane briefing at the White House, Trump said, “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” according to one source who was there. “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. Why can’t we do that?” the source added, paraphrasing the president’s remarks.
The Guardian has more:
Donald Trump has reportedly suggested on more than one occasion that the US military should bomb hurricanes in order to disrupt them before they make landfall.
According to US news website Axios, the president said in a meeting with top national security and homeland security officials about the threat of hurricanes: “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?”
“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. Why can’t we do that?”
Quoting unnamed sources who were present at the meeting, Axios report that the response from one official was “We’ll look into this.”
Axios reports that Trump isn’t the first American official to raise the idea and that it was raised, and rejected, during the Eisenhower Administration for reasons that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) addresses on its website:
A fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20×1013 watts and converts less than 10% 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 1013 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20% 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.
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. 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 (1000 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 (500,000,000) tons for a 20 km radius eye. It’s difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around.
Attacking weak tropical waves or depressions before they have a chance to grow into hurricanes isn’t promising either. About 80 of these disturbances form every year in the Atlantic basin, but only about 5 become hurricanes in a typical year. There is no way to tell in advance which ones will develop. If the energy released in a tropical disturbance were only 10% 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.
Additionally, National Geographic addressed the issue last year:
“Could Hurricane Carla have been broken up, or greatly modified, or its course turned back to sea, by nuclear bombs?,” asked an editorial in the Longview Daily News. “The suggestion that man-made explosions may effect [sic] hurricanes cannot be dismissed with the same degree of certainty on the basis of energy comparisons as was possible with earlier atomic weapons.”
In other words, America now had the hydrogen bomb, which was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Japan. Couldn’t this energy be unleashed as a hurricane killer?
Jack W. Reed, a meteorologist at Sandia Laboratory, thought so. In fact, he came up with the idea while studying the atmospheric effects produced by America’s first detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which had lifted a massive column of air more than 20 miles into the sky.
In his paper, Reed speculated that a submarine could travel underwater to penetrate the eye of a hurricane, where it would launch and detonate one or more nuclear missiles. The ensuing explosion would loft most of the relatively warm air in the hurricane’s eye high above the storm into the stratosphere. The warm air would then be replaced by colder, denser air—reducing the wind speed and weakening the storm.
Reed calculated that a 20 megaton explosion could slow a storm with 100-knot peak winds to 50 knots.
But Reed didn’t find any takers for his idea. The research would require setting off multiple nukes at several million dollars a pop. Government officials expressed concern that bombing hurricanes would conflict with U.S. efforts to end atmospheric nuclear tests.
And, there’s also the slight problem that—in the words of Robert Nelson, a physicist who studies nuclear weapons—“It’s just wacky.”
For starters, as NOAA observes, there’s the issue of radioactive fallout, which would “fairly quickly move with the trade winds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems.”
Also, it wouldn’t work. The key obstacle is the amount of energy required. The heat release from a hurricane is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes, NOAA calculates. In order to shrink a Category 5hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane, you would have to add about a half ton of air for each square yard inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion (500,000,000) tons for an eye 25 miles in diameter. “It’s difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around,” NOAA says.
There are other reasons why we ought not consider the idea of diverting the course of hurricanes or other storms notwithstanding their potentially destructive impacts. These tropical storms, which occur all over the world even though they are known by different names, such as Typhoons, Cyclones, or Monsoons, depending on where they arise, often play an important role in the environment of the area where they occur. The Monsoon season in India and Bangladesh, for example, is seen as crucial toward helping to maintain freshwater supplies to support the massive populations of both nations notwithstanding the fact that they often result in dangerous flooding in both nations. The same can often be true of hurricanes that hit the United States and bring with them rains that help bring seasonal droughts to an end. Disrupting these storms could end up having unintended consequences that we cannot possibly anticipate at this time. In other words, this is one of those times it would be best not to mess with the natural course of events.
I suppose if this were something that the President asked about once, it would be understandable. To someone who isn’t a meteorological or nuclear weapons expert this might sound like something that makes sense. What’s weird is that the President apparently has brought it up on more than once despite having it explained to him why this is clearly not a good idea. Of course, this is just one example of Trump’s seemingly bizarre obsession with nuclear weapons and the idea that they could be used without consequence in a number of situations.
In addition to that, Trump has displayed astounding ignorance about the issue. Nack in December 2015 at one of the last debates among Republican candidates for President before voting actually began, talk radio host and Law Professor Hugh Hewitt asked Trump about the components of America’s nuclear arsenal. This was a standard question that Hewitt had asked all of the candidates who had previously appeared on his show, and which even now remains an important question given the fact that the Defense Department is in the middle of a review of the state of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that is expected to address issues such as the state of the so-called ‘nuclear triad,’ which refers to the combination of land, sea, and air-based launch system that the U.S. relies on to ensure the existence of a viable nuclear deterrent. As I noted at the time, Trump’s response to Hewitt’s question was glaringly incoherent and demonstrated the fact that he was essentially ignorant about one of the most important aspects of future nuclear weapons policy. Several months after that, during a Town Hall broadcast on Fox News Channel, Trump was similarly incoherent when asked a question about his nuclear deterrent strategy. At other points during the campaign and in a few interviews since he took office, Trump has also made controversial comments about nuclear proliferation that seemingly encouraged the idea of a nuclear arms race among the powers in the Middle East and in Asia in response to the North Korean threat. Another incident occurred in August 2016, when MSBNC reported that a foreign policy expert who was briefing the Trump campaign that at one point Trump asked him why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons. Given that this is an area where the President has virtually unfettered and unchecked authority, Trump’s ignorance and willingness to consider the use of nuclear weapons is, to say the least quite worrisome.