The Cheat Sheet

Keep calm and nuke the hurricanes!

Venky Vembu | Updated on August 29, 2019

Lemme guess: Imran Khan said that?

Nope. The Pakistan Prime Minister has, of course, been venting lately about deploying nuclear weapons targeting India, but so far he has not spoken of nuking destructive weather systems.

So, whose itchy finger is on the button?

Who else but Donald Trump? Media website Axios reported this week that Trump had suggested to US officials that they consider using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the US. Trump denied saying that, and dismissed the report as one more instance of “fake news”.

Another ‘he said, she said’ situation.

Yes, but it created a stir on social media because it reinforced stereotypes of Trump as a reckless buffoon who should never have been allowed within 10 miles of the nuclear button.

It does sound reckless.

Sure, it does. But it’s not the first time someone has considered using nuclear weapons to slay hurricanes. In fact, some of the keenest scientific minds have grappled with the idea.

That’s seriously scary…

I know. As far back as in 1961, Francis Reichelderfer, who headed the US Weather Bureau for 25 years from 1938, said he could “imagine the possibility someday of exploding a nuclear bomb on a hurricane far at sea.” To be fair, he also said the Weather Bureau would not embark on such adventures “until we know what we’re doing.”

What other cuckoo ideas are afloat?

Also in the early 1960s, the US administration experimented with a plan to weaken hurricanes through ‘cloud seeding’ with silver iodide. The initial results did suggest that the hurricanes had weakened somewhat; however, those findings were called into question, and the project was wound down.

Thank god for that.

Yes, but during those heady days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, when every technological innovation was weaponised, the idea kept buzzing around in scientists’ minds during the hurricane season. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt the need to address the futility of such thought experiments. On the FAQ section of its website, it responds to the question: “Why don’t we try to destroy tropical cyclones by nuking them?”

What does it say?

Apart from the fact that it might not even alter the storm, the 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, it added, “this is not a good idea.”

That’s that, then?

You’d think. Some Americans never give up. In 2017, more than 43,000 of them signed up to combat Hurrican Irma by firing bullets into the storm and even using flame throwers and lasers.

I’m betting they voted for Trump.

Very likely. Also, some others have considered harnessing other aspects of science — without deploying nuclear weapons — in the cause of controlling the weather. Among the luminaries is one Bill Gates.


You bet. In 2009, Gates and 12 others filed a patent application (No. 20090173386) for a method of “environmental alteration” to weaken hurricanes. The process is complicated, but it involves pumping cold water from the ocean’s depths to inhibit hurricanes from generating their storm fury from the warm waters. The idea was conceptualised as a last-ditch resort — when “humans decide we have exhausted all of our behaviour-changing and alternative energy options and need to rely on mitigation technologies.”

Even that sounds crazy…

…but not as crazy as nuking a hurricane.

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Published on August 29, 2019

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