A proposed bill would prohibit President Trump from nuking hurricanes. These illustrations show why even a bomb can’t disrupt a storm.

President Donald Trump speaks during an Oval Office meeting on preparations for Hurricane Florence at the White House, September 2018. Reuters/Leah Millis

Rep. Sylvia Garcia introduced a bill to Congress on June 1 that would prohibit the president or any federal agency from nuking hurricanes.

The bill, she said, was drafted in response to a question Trump reportedly posed last August, when he asked advisors during a briefing about hurricanes: “Why don’t we nuke them?”

His idea, according to Axios, was a nuclear solution to the tropical storms that plague the southeastern US every summer and fall: “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?” Trump asked.

The president later called the Axios report “fake news,” but Garcia, a democrat representing Texas’s 29th district, seems to be taking no chances.

Her proposed bill would ban the use of nuclear weapons to alter weather patterns or address climate change.

“Normally I wouldn’t think we’d need to legislate something so obvious, but given remarks this president made in August 2019, apparently, we do. Such use would result in radioactive fallout and cause significant public health and environmental harm,” Garcia said in a statement.

Hurricane Florence satellite image
Hurricane Florence as seen from the International Space Station on September 10, 2018. NASA via Getty Images

According to hurricane researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), if the US were to nuke a hurricane, radioactive fallout could spread to island nations in the Caribbean or states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Exposure to too much radiation in a short time can damage the body’s cells and permanently contaminate land.

“Needless to say, this is not a good idea,” the NOAA experts concluded in an article published in 2014.

Fallout concerns aside, the researchers also described why it would be impossible to disrupt a hurricane with a bomb: We don’t have nuclear bombs powerful enough for the task, nor the resources to build enough of them to combat even one hurricane.

We don’t have nukes powerful enough to match a hurricane

Hurricanes are vast cyclones that result from low-pressure pockets forming over warm water in the Atlantic. If either of those elements dissipate – the warm air or area of low pressure – the hurricane loses strength and breaks down.

So meteorologist Jack Reed suggested in 1959 that a nuclear explosion could potentially push the warm air up and out of a storm’s eye, which would enable colder air to take its place and eliminate the low-pressure band fuelling a hurricane.

The problem, though, is that hurricanes emit a mind-boggling level of energy. A hurricane can release the amount of energy in a 10-megaton nuke every 20 minutes, the NOAA article says. That’s more than 666 times bigger than the “Little Boy” bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

So we don’t have nukes big or powerful enough to continuously match a hurricane’s strength; that would require almost 2,000 “Little Boys” per hour.

Nuking Hurricane graphic 3

In terms of size alone, Hurricane Katrina – which was 400 miles wide – was 283 times the size of the blast radius of “Little Boy.” Katrina’s eye, at 37 miles in diameter, covered 11 times the area of 15 kilo-ton explosive detonated over Hiroshima.

What’s more, the NOAA article says, after an explosive’s initial high-pressure shock moves outward (which happens faster than the speed of sound), the surrounding air pressure in a hurricane would return to the same low-pressure state it was in before.

So unless we were able to detonate nuclear explosives in the eye of the hurricane on a continuous basis, we wouldn’t be able to dissipate the low-pressure air that keeps the storm going.

Hurricanes are hard to predict

Attacking tropical storms – which pack less energy than hurricanes do – with nuclear bombs before they become hurricanes “isn’t promising either,” the NOAA article says.

Tropical Storm Cristobal
Satellite imagery shows Tropical Storm Cristobal, June 3, 2020. NOAA GOES-East

All hurricanes in the Atlantic begin as tropical depressions, in which low-pressure areas are accompanied by thunderstorms and circular winds under 39 mph.

But very few of these depressions turn into major hurricanes, and “there is no way to tell in advance which ones will develop,”the NOAA article says. An average hurricane season has 12 named storms, six of which are hurricanes, and three of which are major hurricanes (category 3 or above).

So if the US attempted to nuke a developing tropical depression, it wouldn’t know whether the weather event needed intervention in the first place.

Nuking hurricanes would be extremely expensive

The sheer number of bombs needed to continuously disrupt a hurricane, of course, also means doing so would be extraordinarily expensive.

Nuking Hurricane graphic 4

According to the Brookings Institution, the cost of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima would be $US8.18 billion in 2019 dollars, adjusted for inflation.

In 2018, the base budget for the US Department of Defence was $US576 billion. So the 666 “Little Boy”-sized bombs needed to match the power a hurricane emits in 20 minutes would cost far more than the entire defence budget.