Can hurricanes be stopped with bombs or ice? 5 theories debunked
TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Whenever a hurricane looks like it’s going to take aim at the United States, it’s a good bet that theories and proposals will start making the rounds from people who think the storm could be stopped, weakened or pushed out to sea — but are any of them crazy enough to work?
From bizarre to realistic, some of the ideas tossed around each hurricane season include using bombs, icebergs, fans or chemical compounds to combat storms. So why wouldn’t any of those methods work? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains on its website, “as carefully reasoned as some of these suggestions are, they all share the same shortcoming: They fail to appreciate the size and power of tropical cyclones.”
Here are some of the most common suggestions meteorologist and scientists get on how to stop a hurricane – and why they wouldn’t work:
Suggestion 1: Drop a bomb into a hurricane
One idea that gets tossed around fairly often is nuking a hurricane to destroy it. According to NOAA, the question comes up at least once every hurricane season – so often that the agency debunks the idea on its frequently asked questions page.
“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 trade winds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems,” NOAA explains. “Needless to say, this is not a good idea.”
The agency goes on to explain that it would require an extremely large amount of energy to try and modify hurricanes with bombs.
“The heat release [of a fully developed hurricane] is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes,” NOAA says.
Suggestion 2: Cool the Atlantic with ice
One of the main ingredients a tropical cyclone needs to form is warm sea surface temperatures. That’s why August and September is when we see the most tropical activity – and typically, the strongest storms – because that’s the time of year the water temperatures are at their warmest.
So why can’t we just cool off the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico with icebergs? As Tracking the Tropics Meteorologist Rebecca Barry puts it, it would be like dropping an ice cube into a bath tub.
According to NOAA, the “critical region” to target for this theory would be near the eyewall of a hurricane.
“If the eyewall was 30 miles in diameter, that means an area of nearly 2,000 square miles. Now if the hurricane is moving at 10 miles an hour, it will sweep over 7,200 square miles of ocean. That’s a lot of icebergs for just 24 hours of the cyclone’s life,” NOAA explains.
In addition, the agency says that doesn’t even take into consideration the uncertainty of a storm’s track.
Suggestion 3: Replicate Saharan dust
While tropical activity is not out of the question in the early months of hurricane season, plumes of dust that originate in the Sahara Desert and move across the Atlantic do help keep things quieter at the beginning of the season. That’s because tropical systems need moisture to form and strengthen – and the Saharan dust is very dry.
If Saharan dust helps keep things quiet and prevents storms from strengthening, some may wonder why we can’t just replicate that dust to use during the busier months of hurricane season. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Think of Saharan dust as more of the symptom, not the cause, of quiet conditions in the tropics, Barry says. The dust itself is not squelching the tropical activity, but multiple large-scale factors that must come together for the dust to be present in heavier concentrations and travel across the Atlantic.
“Things like large areas of dry, stable air across the Atlantic, brisk upper-level winds to carry the dust and a broad scale weather pattern to produce dust storms across the Saharan Desert. When we see Saharan dust, it’s a sign of a bigger weather pattern that is not conducive to tropical development, it’s not the dust itself producing the effect,” Barry explained. “If we were to release huge amounts of dust over the Atlantic, it would make for muddy rain, but that’s about it.”
Not to mention the sheer amount that it would take to replicate a Saharan Dust plume would be extremely difficult to replicate to scale.
Suggestion 4: Use wind turbines to push the storm
When Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida in 2017, tens of thousands of people joined a Facebook event pledging to point their fans at the storm and blow it away.
“Everyone takes their fans outside and points them at Hurricane Irma to blow it away from us,” the event organizer said. “Air compressors with a blow gun attachment also a plus, or anything else. Get creative.”
While the event was a joke, some may wonder – why can’t we use something like wind turbines to push hurricanes away? Once again, it comes back to the sheer size and power of a storm.
“Nothing we can produce on our human scale could compete with the energy and size of a hurricane,” Barry said. “It would be like pricking the huge storm with a needle, virtually nonexistent compared to the amount of energy and force of the storms.”
Suggestion 5: Cloud seeding
Starting in the early 1960s through the the early 1980s, the U.S. government conducted an experimental program called Project STORMFURY with the goal of hurricane modification using chemical compounds.
“The proposed modification technique involved artificial stimulation of convection outside the eyewall through seeding with silver iodide,” the Hurricane Research Division of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory explains on its website.
NOAA says “the STORMFURY seeding targeted convective clouds just outside the hurricane’s eyewall in an attempt to form a new ring of clouds that, hopefully, would compete with the natural circulation of the storm and weaken it.”
According to NOAA, the project attempted modification on four hurricanes on eight different days. Winds decreased by 10 percent to 30 percent on half of those days, but the results of the experimental program were later questioned and dismissed due to what NOAA calls a “fatal flaw.”
“Observations made in the 1980s showed that most hurricanes don’t have enough supercooled water for STORMFURY seeding to work – the buoyancy in hurricane convection is fairly small and the updrafts correspondingly small compared to the type one would observe in mid-latitude continental super or multicells,” NOAA says on its FAQ website. “In addition, it was found that unseeded hurricanes form natural outer eyewalls just as the STORMFURY scientists expected seeded ones to do.”
Tracking the Tropics streams every Wednesday during hurricane season. For the latest updates, check out our Tracking the Tropics website.