Saturday, March 13, 2021

Can we stop hurricanes?

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below.]


Hurricanes are among the most devastating natural disasters. That’s because hurricanes are enormous! A medium-sized hurricane extends over an area about the size of Texas. On a globe they’ll cover 6 to 12 degrees latitude. And as they blow over land, they leave behind wide trails of destruction, caused by strong winds and rain. Damages from hurricanes regularly exceed billions of US dollars. Can’t we do something about that? Can’t we blast hurricanes apart? Redirect them? Or stop them from forming in the first place? What does science say about that? That’s what we’ll talk about today.

Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, has reportedly asked repeatedly whether it’s possible to get rid of hurricanes by dropping nuclear bombs on them. His proposal was swiftly dismissed by scientists and the media likewise. Their argument can be summed up with “you can’t” and even if you could “it’d be a bad idea.” Trump then denied he ever said anything, the world forgot about it, and here we are, still wondering if not there’s something we can do to stop hurricanes.

Trumps idea might sound crazy, but he was not the first to think of nuking a hurricane, and he probably won’t be the last. And I think trying to prevent hurricanes isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

The idea to nuke a hurricane came up already right after nuclear weapons were deployed for the first time, in Japan in August 1945. August is in the middle of the hurricane season in Florida. The mayor of Miami Beach, Herbert Frink, made the connection. He asked President Harry Truman about the possibility to use the new weapon to fight against hurricanes. And, sure enough, the Americans looked into it.

But they quickly realized that while the energy released by a nuclear bomb was gigantic compared to all other kinds of weapons, it was still nothing compared to the energies that build up in hurricanes. For comparison: The atomic bombs dropped on Japan released an energy of about 20 kilotons each. A typical hurricane releases about 10,000 times as much energy – per hour. The total power of a hurricane is comparable to the entire global power consumption. That’s because hurricanes are enormous!

By the way, hurricanes and typhoons are the same thing. The generic term used by meterologists is “tropical cyclone”. It refers to “a rotating, organized system of clouds and thunderstorms that originates over tropical or subtropical waters.” If they get large enough, they’re then either called hurricanes or typhoons, or they just remain tropical cyclones. But it’s like the difference between an astronaut and a cosmonaut. The same thing!

But back to the nukes. In 1956 an Air Force meteorologist by name Jack W Reed proposed to launch a megaton nuclear bomb – that is about 50 times the power of the ones in Japan – into a hurricane. Just to see what happened. He argued: “Since a complete theory for the dynamics of hurricanes will probably not be derived by meteorologists for several years, argument pros and con without conclusive foundation will be made over the effects to be expected… Only a full-scale test could prove the results.” In other words, if we don’t do it, we’ll never know just how bad the idea is. For what the radiation hazard was concerned, Reed claimed it would be negligible: “An airburst would cause no intense fallout,” never mind that a complete theory for the dynamics of hurricanes wasn’t available then and still isn’t.

Reed’s proposal was dismissed by both the military and the scientific community. The test never took place, but the proposal is interesting nevertheless, because Reed went to some length to explain how to go about nuking a hurricane smartly.

To understand what he was trying to get at, let’s briefly talk about how hurricanes form. Hurricanes can form over the ocean when the water temperature is high enough. Trouble begins at around 26 degrees Celsius or 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The warm water evaporates and rises. As it rises it cools and creates clouds. This tower of water-heavy clouds begins to spin because the Coriolis force, which comes from the rotation of planet Earth, acts on the air that’s drawn in, and the more the clouds spin, the better they get at drawing in more air. As the spinning accelerates, the center of the hurricane clears out and leaves behind a mostly calm region that’s usually a few dozen miles in diameter and has very low barometric pressure. This calm center is called the “eye” of the hurricane.

Reed now argued that if one detonates a megaton nuclear weapon directly in the eye of a hurricane, this would blast away the warm air that feeds the cycle, increase the barometric pressure, and prevent the storm from gathering more strength.

Now, the obvious problem with this idea is that even if you succeeded, you’d deposit radioactive debris in clouds that you just blasted all over the globe, congratulations. But even leaving aside the little issue with the radioactivity, it almost certainly wouldn’t work because - hurricanes are enormous.

It’s not only that you’re still up against a power that exceeds that of your nuclear bomb by three orders of magnitude, it’s also that an explosion doesn’t actually move a lot of air from one place to another, which is what Reed envisioned. The blast creates a shock wave – that’s bad news for everything in the way of that shock – but it does little to change the barometric pressure after the shock wave has passed through.

So if nuclear bombs are not the way to deal with hurricanes, can we maybe make them rain off before they make landfall? This technique is called “cloud seeding” and we talked about this in a previous video. If you remember, there are two types of cloud seeding, one that creates snow or ice, and one that creates rain.

The first one, called glaciogenic seeding was indeed tried on hurricanes by Homer Simpson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMVKksxZgwU No, not this Homer, but a man by name Robert Homer Simpson, who in 1962 was the first director of the American Project Stormfury, which had the goal of weakening hurricanes.

The Americans actually *did spray a hurricane with silver iodide and observed afterwards that the hurricane indeed weakened. Hooray! But wait. Further research showed that hurricane clouds contain very little supercooled water droplets, so the method couldn’t work even in theory. Instead, it turned out that hurricanes frequently undergo similar changes without intervention, so the observation was most likely coincidence. Project Stormfury was canceled in 1983.

What about hygroscopic cloud seeding, which works by spraying clouds with particles that absorb water, to make the clouds rain off? The effects of this have been studied to some extent by observing natural phenomena. For example, dust that’s blown up over the Sahara Desert can be transported by winds over long distances. Though much remains to be understood, some observations seem to indicate that interactions with this dust makes it easier for the clouds to rain off, which naturally weaken hurricanes.

So why don’t we try something similar? Again, the problem is that hurricanes are enormous! You’d need a whole army of airplanes to spray the clouds, and even then that would almost certainly not make the hurricanes disappear, but merely weaken them.

There’s a long list of other things people have considered to get rid of hurricanes. For example, spraying the upper layers of a hurricane with particles that absorb sunlight to warm up the air, and thereby reduce the updraft. But again, the problem is that hurricanes are enormous! Keep in mind, you’d have to spray an area about the size of Texas.

A similar idea is to prevent the air above the ocean from evaporating and feeding the growth of the hurricane, for example by covering the ocean surface with oil films. The obvious problem with this idea is that, well, now you have all that oil on the ocean. But also, some small-scale experiments have shown that the oil-cover tends to break up, and where it doesn’t break up, it can actually aid the warming of the water, which is exactly what you don’t want.

How about we cool the ocean surface instead? This idea has been pursued for example by Bill Gates, who, in 2009, together with a group of scientists and entrepreneurs patented a pump system that would float in the ocean and pump cool water from deep down to the surface. In 2017 the Norwegian company SINTEF put forward a similar proposal. The problem with this idea is, guess what, hurricanes are enormous! You’d have to get a huge number of these pumps in the right place at the right time.

Another seemingly popular idea is to drag icebergs from the poles to the tropics to cool the water. I leave it to you to figure out the logistics for making this happen.

Yet again other people have argued that one doesn’t actually have to blow apart a hurricane to get rid of it, one merely has to detonate a nuclear bomb strategically so that the hurricane changes direction. The problem with this idea is that no one wants multiple nations to play nuclear billiard on the oceans.

As you have seen, there are lots of ideas, but the key problem is that hurricanes are enormous!

And that means the most promising way to prevent them is to intervene before they get too large. Hurricanes don’t suddenly pop out of nowhere, they take several days to form and usually arise from storms in the tropics which also don’t pop out of nowhere.

What the problem then comes down to is that meteorologists can’t presently predict well enough and not long enough in advance just which regions will go on to form hurricanes. But, as you have seen, researchers have tried quite a few methods to interfere with the feedback cycle that grows hurricanes, and some of them actually work. So, if we could tell just when and where to interfere, that might actually make a difference.

My conclusion therefore is: If you want to prevent hurricanes, you don’t need larger bombs, you need to invest into better weather forecasts.

38 comments:

  1. “Hey Dad, can we use an atomic bomb to destroy a hurricane?” I remember that well, a time of asking my father at about the age of 9 or 10. My father studied engineering as an undergraduate, though later changing to linguistics for his PhD, and he pondered for a few seconds and told me that a hurricane had thousands of times the energy of a nuclear bomb. This is essentially what Sabine says here.

    Now we can ask the question of whether we humans can make hurricanes larger. The answer is clearly yes, and we are doing a good job of it. By pumping 40 billion tons of CO_2 in the atmosphere every year we are increasing the amount of energy in the atmosphere by around a Hiroshima atom bomb equivalent of energy every second or so.

    A nuclear explosion is a transient energetic event. There were similar ideas of using multi-megaton H-bombs to general waves, and it became clear this is not a great idea either. The wave crests and dissipates energy. An underground tectonic shift can generate a pressure wave that propagates fast, and when it reaches shallow regions this pressure pushes up the wave into a moving wall, we call a tsunami. The energy involved is one or two orders of magnitude larger than a hurricane. So even the biggest H-bomb is not up to the task. Modifying atmospheric and oceanic dynamics with nuclear bombs is just a bad idea.

    Are there ways of reducing hurricanes in general? This might get into geo-engineering, which is a nettlesome prospect we may be forced into. If we could just reduce the average energy flux onto tropical oceans we might reduce their energy and thus severity. The standard idea is to put aerosols into the upper troposphere to scatter light back into space. The often proposed idea is sulfate particles, but that might increase acid rain ---- something we put a curb on in the 1970-80s. Other ideas have been floated around, which include ways to increase phytoplankton activity.

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    1. Hi Lawrence

      Anything (in addition to sulfates) that changes the ecological balance that exists or changes how light and heat interact with the marine environment strikes me as potentially causing further issues, possibly a cascade of disasters. Did you find any information about that?

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    2. I do not follow the professional literature on this. There are a few things I am aware of. Hansen's original paper, which is based on Stefan-Boltzmann rule and data about CO_2 has been as an average theory spot on. More advanced models give greater resolution with respect to geography, weather and seasons. The other is I have read indirect sources that with the increased energy in the atmosphere is increasing the severity of cyclonic storms.

      Will geo-engineering change this? It might, but of course there could be other side effects. Sulfate compounds strike me as problematic. Small micron sized glass beads might work and are chemically at least neutral. So long as there is not a substitution with plastic spheres I think that might work. Also geo-engineering will do no good if captains of industry decide we can keep pumping out CO_2 not that this is "solved."

      I suspect really that not much will be done. I am at a point where I think the soundest mind on these issues is George Carlin with his comedy routine "Saving Planet Earth." He starts out sounding like a red-necked anti-environmentalist, but he is priming the audience. The end of it sort of puts things in an interesting perspective. The biosphere of Earth will probably be doing just fine 25 million years from now.

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    3. "I suspect really that not much will be done."
      You know, maybe in the question of messing with highly dynamic complex system, which requires major cooperation, integrated intelligence and resources (w/o any effort spent arguing about trifles and how to steal more money and how to cut each others heads in stupid seizures of control rage), it's not that bad that an up-front down-home low-rent high-maintenance laid-back fashion-forward non-believer and drastic over-achiever won't do much. I'd rather worry for his ardor in such questions (and giving him ideas ;-)

      Somehow a thought that life will find a way (eventually, before too many tipping points are reached) is uplifting. Maybe all those long-tormented poor little tardigrades will finally draw a sigh of relief and feast on excess of algae after glaciers have melted...

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    4. Cockroaches and tardigrades shall inherit the Earth...

      It seems pretty terrible that people are trying to come up with ways to engineer Earth back into its original shape before humans started messing with it at the same time as we're talking about terraforming
      other worlds, and also continuing to wreck this one.

      It's maddening that all the sensible people on Earth aren't yet able to outweigh the greedy. Here's hoping there's enough upset people to make the changes that need to occur to save us from these stuff-ups.

      At least we've got some great ideas for works of science fiction from these proposals, I suppose.

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    5. Not to say, b.t.w., that every idea is useless, perhaps they can be implemented on a smaller scale to help mitigate or reverse some harm.

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  2. Hi everybody ,I remember when I was a child in Cuba, I loved cyclones, three consecutive days without going to school !, hahaha; life is just a gust of wind

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  3. Humans think hurricanes are a problem, maybe its the humans that are the problem?

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    1. As a species, we're pretty good at putting ourselves in harm's way.
      Which is why I have no intention of moving to the coast - if a some sort of sea-bourne storm doesn't get one, a tsunami might.

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  4. If you try to make the hurricane go away you are going to leave behind the heat energy that would have been dissipated by the hurricane so the next one that come along would probably just be worse.

    Also over here on the other side of a too hot ocean if you try to mess with a hurricane and you screw up, you're gonna get sued bigly because not only are hurricane enormous they are also enormously powerful.

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  5. If you want to prevent hurricanes, take steps to lessen global warming.

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    1. That will not prevent hurricanes.

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    2. Reducing global warming/ climate change will ameliorate cyclonic energy increases, won't it?

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    3. Yeah, but it won't prevent hurricanes.

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    4. That hurricanes release 10,000 times more energy than atomic bombs per hour just shows the enormous potential behind renewable energy sources.

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    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    6. @davidb @Dr Hossenfelder
      I mean, perhaps 'ameliorate' isn't quite the term I was after. Changing climates are already, for examemple, sending cyclones further south down the Australian coastline than was usual, in addition to increasing severity of storms. Stopping them altogether isn't a viable solution even if it were possible I am guessing as these storms are a part of the world's heat and moisture transfer.

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    7. Actually, 'mitigate' was the word I wanted. Esprit d'escalier, dammit.

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  6. The thing I find kind-of comforting about cyclones is that along with being ENORMOUS, they certainly exist. There's no philosophical quibbling to be had about if/ how they are real or useful, nor any brain-bending implications about them. And that unlike Donald Trump, anything daft scientifically daft I say will stay here, not be broadcast around the world.
    Seriously though, I hope that given we know what doesn't work, advances in meteorology and modeling give people much better information to act on.

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  7. It seems like there should be a way to at least suck some of the energy out of them for useful purposes. A bunch of wind turbines on a floating platform which approaches from the side that will be blown away from the path? Used to power some sort of carbon sequestration from the atmosphere?

    Probably some of them would be lost to faulty navigation/forecasting. There is a learning curve for every new process.

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  8. Apparently the problem is heat exchange; In the southern hemisphere there are almost no cyclones, it is that there is a better exchange of oceanic heat; then further freezing of the Arctic should make heat exchange at the North Pole more difficult because ice reduces ocean communication and would make cyclones more intense; that is, colder winter
    more intense cyclones, which seems a bit contradictory to what is said in the media.

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    1. Luis,
      There are more cyclones heading to Australia (where I live) and heading further south - this article is a year old but your comment reminded me of this shift.

      https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-06/cyclones-spreading-south-could-cause-tens-of-billions-in-damage/12020218

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  9. C Thompson , study by insurance company???; prepare your wallet, hahaha

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    1. As I said above, that's one of the reasons I'm not moving closer to the coast, lol! Even if Sydney, my city, is too far south for landfall, we could still get some of the residual wet weather. Not fun!

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  10. Life has evolved in the presence of hurricanes and forest fires. Some life depends on them. How boring it would be if we didn't have hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.

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  11. Looking at the peaks for the last 10 and 20 solar cycles we appear to be entering a minima period that could match the late 19th to early 20th century drop in sunspot activity, or possibly something akin to the Dalton minimum in the early 1800's. This could be fortunate for our global civilization, buying us time to greatly reduce our carbon emissions, by offsetting some of the greenhouse warming.

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  12. If a hurricane cannot be avoided, lean back and enjoy reading Typhoon by Joseph Conrad.

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  13. Hi Dr. B --
    [Off topic] I was one of the (probably many) people who suggested that you be asked to do one of the Astrophysics Golden Webinars, and I was delighted to see that you are scheduled for this week. I'm sure your blog readers would love to know about it!
    Jim

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  14. A solution to the hurricane issue might be found in the general approach to whether control as follows:

    A fleet of weather control space stations could be placed in geosynchronous orbit deployed to cover a portion of a country or region of ocean. These stations manage the deployment of reflective shade that can be directed to cover their region of responsibility with shade. Such darkness is produced by a highly refecting sheet of ultra light but highly durable material that redirects the sun's radiation away from the region thus cooling the region of interest. The region that is so shaded is about 1000 kilometers in diameter.

    These sun screens are similar to solar sails and can be adjusted to maintain station keeping in orbit or to relocate to regions of need to action weather control. A system of weather modeling and planning automation pre plans and directs how these space stations produce the desired weather modifications that have been deemed reasonable to accomplish by the national weather control authority.

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  15. Könnte die wabernde Suppe unter uns nicht auch Klimawandel erzeugen, bei der hauchdünnen Erdkruste?

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  16. If you think we have a problem with hurricanes here on Earth, then take a look at the cyclones on some of the other planets, especially Jupiter. You can forget Texas, some cyclones on Jupiter are bigger than the Earth.

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  17. Why would we need something as big as a nuclear device to prevent a hurricane? Surely we just need a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on the Russian steppe.

    More seriously: the intervention does not need to match the hurricane in magnitude. It only needs to be sufficient to disrupt the incipient activity. The trick of course is identifying that early enough.

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  18. Personally, I'd be happy with an early warning system, with the emphasis on early...

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