For One Thing, We Just Don't Have the Horsepower To Destroy a Hurricane, Scientists Say

During each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms. 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 tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems. Needless to say, this is not a good idea.

Stanley Goldberg

Stanley Goldberg

Now for a more rigorous scientific explanation of why this would not be an effective hurricane modification technique. 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 20 by 10 (to the 13th power) 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 10 (to the 13th power) 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.

Hugh Willoughby

Hugh Willoughby

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 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.

Stanley B. Goldenberg is a research meteorologist with the Hurricane Research Division/AOML/NOAA located in Miami, Florida. Goldenberg received his Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Meteorology from Florida State University (1978, 1980). His primary research has been in examining the various climatic factors that influence the variability of hurricane activity in the Atlantic from intraseasonal to multidecadal time scales. He was the first author of the study published in Science establishing the fact that the Atlantic hurricane basin has entered a multidecadal-scale era of greatly increased hurricane activity. (This paper was recognized with the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Outstanding Scientific Paper Award.) He is on the team that produces NOAA's Seasonal Hurricane Outlooks for the Atlantic basin and was a co-recipient of NOAA's Bronze Medal for that work. He has participated in numerous research flights into and around hurricanes on NOAA's hurricane hunter aircraft, including flights into Hurricane Katrina (2005) as it made landfall on the Louisiana/Mississippi coast. 

Hugh Willoughby is a distinguished research professor, Department of Earth and Environment, Florida International University. He teaches Meteorology in the  within FIU’s Geosciences Major. He also conducts individual research on hurricane motion, structure, intensity, and effects. From 1995 to 2002, Willoughby was director of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division, responsible for scientific, programmatic, and administrative direction 30 people, including 14 PhDs, with an annual budget of $4-5 million. The division's mission was improvement of both basic physical understanding and operational forecasting of tropical cyclones and of tropical weather in general. A key aspect of this mission was an annual program of research flights into severe tropical weather.  

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