You can just imagine the scene, can’t you? An office somewhere in Washington, lit by fluorescent lights, several tired and dispirited men sitting around a table strewn with papers. On the wall, the latest satellite photos are tacked up to show the progress of a massive hurricane system towards New York.
It’s understandable that they’re dejected. Even at the very best, New York will suffer millions – perhaps billions – of dollars worth of damage and disruption when the storm hits, to say nothing of the loss and deaths that the inhabitants will suffer. But there’s nothing that can stop this force of nature, any fool knows that. One of them mutters “Pity we can’t just bomb it…”
… and on the other side of the room, a balding man with thick glasses raises his head.
“What did you say?”
“The hurricane. It’s a shame we can’t just bomb it. It would save a lot of hassle.”
With the light of epiphany in his eyes, the balding man slowly stands up. “Jerry… that’s brilliant! That’s exactly what we’ll do!”
After the atom bomb was revealed in 1945, it didn’t take long for people to start thinking about how humanity’s new power could be used. On the plus side, many of these people wanted to use it for peaceful purposes. On the minus side, they were still thinking mostly in terms of bombs.
The most obvious peaceful application of nuclear explosives was to treat them like conventional explosives, only more so – where dynamite could be used to cut a path through hills, a few nukes could be used to get rid of the hills altogether. But this was mere kindergarten stuff, unworthy of the intellects at the Atomic Energy Commission. True, Project Chariot was a little more interesting – the plan to use hydrogen bombs to create an artificial harbour in a deserted part of Alaska had some fascinating details, and it was only:
a) the insistence of the tribes living in the area that they didn’t want it, and
b) the fact that there was no reason for anyone to ever use it
that prevented it going ahead. But it was essentially just shovelling earth. Even if you could move 12 million tonnes at a time (and drop fallout across a minimum of four states while you did so), it wasn’t really new. Fortunately, the AEC had other options.
Project Gasbuggy, the project to use nuclear bombs to stimulate production of natural gas, was technically successful but didn’t take off commercially. It was felt by some that the gas produced was too radioactive to be used in household appliances, and the idea that household cookers might soon be spreading radionuclides did not go down well with the public. Project Gnome was intended to use the great heat generated by a nuclear explosion to generate steam, which could then in turn be used to generate electricity. Sadly it also generated regrettable publicity when a plume of radioactive steam shot out of the ground in front of observers from the UN, local residents, and a variety of media crews.
There were also two proposals that involved nuking the moon (no, this is not some sort of joke). At that time the American public believed the USSR was ahead in the space race; the US Air Force felt that detonating an American weapon on the moon would have an uplifting effect on public morale.
A different justification was given by a group of scientists – the debris from such an explosion would provide valuable information about the composition of the moon. Unfortunately the idea did not in the end gain approval. There was some concern that the public might not be as enthusiastic about the explosion as hoped, and it was decided that a manned landing might gain more public support. I would just like to take this opportunity to point out that this decision means astronauts were considered more effective than nuclear weapons… and since I play KSP, this seems entirely reasonable to me.
So the AEC had plenty to keep them going, even if not all their schemes were successful. Some ideas didn’t even make it to the planning stage… and for good reason.
When all you have is an atomic hammer, it shouldn’t be a surprise that everything looks like a nuclear nail. One idea that even the AEC regarded as outlandish and far-fetched was controlling the weather by nuking it. Naturally, that hasn’t stopped it being suggested every time a hurricane threatens the United States.
It’s not completely crazy, of course – hurricanes are formed by specific conditions of temperature and pressure, and if there’s anything that nuclear weapons produce in abundance those qualities are high on the list. Perhaps more importantly a similar possibility was explored during the original effort to produce the atom bomb. Two theorists stumbled upon the idea that a column of rising hot air – such as that produced by a nuclear weapon – could, under the right conditions of humidity, produce a thunderstorm which would spread radioactive fallout over a much larger area than it would reach on its own.
This wasn’t pursued during WW2, as it was difficult to arrange under wartime conditions. But the theory was validated during post-war nuclear tests, when nuclear thunderstorms were observed to occur repeatedly following detonations. These results are presumably what compels people to suggest the nuclear destruction of hurricanes every year to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And we are after all talking about the AEC here, who investigated the effects of radiation on stored beverages by taking bottles of beer and soda and detonating a nuclear weapon near them (apparently they tasted fine afterwards, which raises questions about who got persuaded to taste-test them and how).
So given that there appears to be some basis in fact for the idea, why hasn’t it been tried?
One reason is that the fallout from an atmospheric nuclear detonation (which this idea would require) would obviously be caught up by the winds responsible for the hurricane and deposited over a wide area. The AEC isn’t exactly a bunch of hippy tree-huggers, and even they were getting nervous about the environmental damage this would cause.
Secondly, it probably wouldn’t work. It’s difficult to appreciate exactly how much energy a hurricane releases, but it’s of the same order as a 10 megaton nuclear weapon every 20 minutes. The pressure front caused by a nuke is also transient – it moves as it races away from the detonation – so it doesn’t have a lasting effect on the air pressure in its vicinity. Changing a Category 5 hurricane down to Category 2 would require moving half a billion tonnes of air and then keeping it in its new position long enough for the hurricane to change category. It’s difficult to imagine how this could be done.
Hurricanes, once formed, are obviously difficult targets for this sort of nuclear weather manipulation. On the other hand, they start off as tropical storms which in theory might be tackled successfully by inducing some sort of atomic thunderstorm.
The problem, once again, is one of scale. A tropical storm only produces a tenth the amount of energy as a full-fledged hurricane, but that is still a great deal. And then there’s the problem that about 80 storms form every year in the Atlantic alone, but only 5 or so ever actually become hurricanes. However you can’t tell ahead of time which ones will, so they would all have to be nuked. Doing this would require a truly massive number of nuclear weapons every year, which would be prohibitively expensive (to say nothing of the environmental consequences of detonating hundreds of large nuclear weapons annually).
So, perhaps fortunately, hurricanes are not at risk of a nuclear bombardment. The idea will probably keep coming up, but there’s no likelihood of it actually being tried. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty happy about that.
Question of the post: What’s the craziest, most inappropriate use of technology you’ve ever heard of?