Sunday night, Axios’s Jonathan Swan broke news that Donald Trump—among his many often random musings—appears to have considered one of the worst-but-most-persistent ideas in public policy: Nuking hurricanes.
The idea has evidently surfaced multiple times in the administration, as Swan outlined, including during a hurricane preparedness briefings at the White House. “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” the president evidently interrupted, according to Swan’s source. “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?”
Even in a White House system engineered to respond quickly and authoritatively to a president’s whims, questions, or orders, no one knew what to do with an idea so obviously batty. As one source reportedly told Swan, “You could hear a gnat fart in that meeting. People were astonished. After the meeting ended, we thought, ‘What the f—? What do we do with this?’” (Trump denied the reports in a tweet Monday.)
The truth, though, is that Donald Trump’s apparent brainstorm—as terrible an idea as it is—actually has a long history. Seventy years ago, it was at the forefront of American scientific thought. What makes Trump’s embrace of nuking hurricanes unique is that, broadly speaking, no policymaker has seriously considered it a good idea since the days that the 73-year-old president was wearing diapers.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—when the US unleashed a destructive technology more powerful than anything in history—at first spurred unbridled excitement over the power of the atom, an era where the very idea of the “atom” was so new that many people mispronounced as “a-TOME.”
Many scientists imagined a world where humans could routinely use nuclear weapons to cleave the earth and remake its climate.
Books flourished touting the newly acquired power of the sun. “When the bomb was dropped,” writer Isaac Asimov explained, “atomic-doom science-fiction stories grew to be so numerous that editors began refusing them on sight.” Cereal giant General Mills got into the act with an offer that children could mail in 15 cents’ postage and a Kix cereal box top in exchange for an “atomic bomb ring,” where kids could “see genuine atoms SPLIT to smithereens.” (General Mills “guaranteed” that the ring was not actually able “to blow everything sky high.”) Some 750,000 children were soon running around their neighborhoods pretending to launch nuclear explosions in all directions. Atomic-themed music became its own genre, atomic cocktails filled American bars—the first, at the Press Club in Washington, DC, was a mix of Pernod and gin—and advertisers embraced the moment. As historian Paul Boyer recounts in his early cultural history of the atomic age, By the Bomb’s Early Light, one jewelry company advertised a “pearled bomb” pin and earring that were “as daring as it was to drop the first atom bomb.”
Engineers dreamed of the day when nuclear engines would replace gasoline-powered automobiles, when a lump of Uranium-235 the size of a vitamin pill would power the family car for years at a time.
In those heady early years of the atomic age, many scientists imagined a world where humans could routinely use nuclear weapons to cleave the earth and remake its climate. Decades before climate change became a major concern, one book, Almighty Atom: The Real Story of Atomic Energy, suggested using atomic weapons to melt the polar ice caps, gifting “the entire world a moister, warmer climate.”
Thought experiments exploded over how harnessing the power of the atom would finally unleash humans’ ability to control and reshape their environment through geo-engineering. “For the first time in the history of the world, man will have at his disposal energy in amounts sufficient to cope with the forces of Mother Nature,” science writer David Dietz explained. Atomic artificial suns, mounted on tall steel towers, would ensure crop growth and guarantee good weather. Radiation was a problem “merely one of detail” to be sorted out later, Dietz said.
Julian Huxley, brother of novelist Aldous Huxley and a renowned biologist who would become the founding director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, was particularly enthusiastic. He suggested at one point that nuclear weapons could be used to flood the Sahara, allowing the arid landscape to “blossom.” He argued in favor of “atomic dynamite” for “landscaping the earth.”
World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, at the time one of the most famous Americans, looked to Antarctica, suggesting nuclear weapons could help miners and businesses access the valuable minerals locked deep under ice. The month before Donald Trump was born, the May 1946 issue of Mechanix Illustrated—a one-time competitor to Popular Mechanics, geared towards America’s dads tinkering in their new garages in the suburbs—suggested that both the Antarctic and Arctic were only a few atomic heat waves away from perfection. A Columbia University professor explained that the ice caps were an “unnatural condition” similar to a “‘common cold’ afflicting the earth in [its] ‘head’ and ‘feet.’”
On the other side of the burgeoning Cold War, the Soviet Union was no less enthusiastic about the geo-engineering possibilities of nuclear power and atomic weapons. In fact, the Stalin-era Soviet government was particularly enthused with the idea of hurrying climate change along for the possibilities of opening its frigid Siberian east to thriving agriculture and bringing subtropical crops to the shores of the Black Sea. In a 1956 book called Soviet Electric Power, Arkadii Borisovich Markin suggested that, “Atom explosions will cut new canyons through mountain ranges and will speedily create canals, reservoirs, and seas [and] carry out huge excavation jobs.” The author brushed aside the obvious concerns, assuming that science would soon “find a method of protection against the radiation.” Soviet scientists proposed how to dam the Bering Strait and use massive nuclear-powered pumps to heat the Arctic Ocean.
America’s public fascination with nuclear weapons continued into the 1950s. In fact, for much of that decade, the United States regularly exploded atomic bombs in the deserts north of Las Vegas, adjacent to what is now Area 51. One of the first tourist attractions in Las Vegas was the chance to wake up early, stand outside your hotel, and watch the flash and mushroom cloud from the bombs rolling into the sky.
The after-effects of radiation—the invisible and inescapable poison spread by nuclear explosions—became clear soon enough. With that awareness, early atomic enthusiasm waned, particularly as bombs leapt from nuclear to thermonuclear, the atomic bomb’s power of kilotons—that is, a thousand tons of TNT—growing to the hydrogen bomb’s megatons, the equivalent of a million tons of TNT.
During a brief window during the Eisenhower era, the US government still seriously explored the peaceful uses of the atom—a program known as PLOWSHARE, after the Biblical phrase about beating swords into plowshares.
The appeal of nuking hurricanes has never really gone away.
Around that same time, nuking hurricanes entered the conversation. According to International Spy Museum historian Vince Houghton, whose book Nuking the Moon details wacky military and intelligence schemes, an American meteorologist named Jack Reed, one of the nation’s earliest hurricane hunters, appears to be the first to seriously consider bombing a hurricane. His calculations held that maybe one or two 20-megaton bombs might be able to deflect a hurricane from land. He called for a test of the theory, but found it embraced by precisely zero policymakers. Frustrated, Reed declared his idea dead simply because it was “politically incorrect.”
As the understanding that the problem of radiation was not “merely one of detail” grew, strict parameters grew up around the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Soon, ideas like that which Trump has evidently suggested were cast to the fringes of scientific thinking; Reed’s idea would actually now be prohibited under international law by the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty.
Yet the appeal of nuking hurricanes has never really gone away. The issue is such a MacGuffin that NOAA has dedicated a webpage to debunking it: “During each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms,” the weather service writes. “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 tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems. Needless to say, this is not a good idea.”
The idea has enough staying power that the meteorologists at NOAA even took on the underlying science, pointing out that there’s little evidence that even a successfully placed atomic bomb would do anything to alter a hurricane’s formation—the systems are simply too large, too strong, and most of all, a nuclear explosion wouldn’t affect the underlying dynamics.
As NOAA says, among the many reasons nuking a hurricane would be unlikely to make any difference at all is the sheer amount of energy contained inside of a storm: “The heat release is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes,” that is, a hurricane is already releasing energy roughly equivalent to three Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-sized bombs every hour. Moreover, downgrading a catastrophic Category 5 storm to a merely strong Category 2 would require, by NOAA’s calculations, moving half-a-billion tons of air.
Moreover, NOAA points out that it’s hard to tell what might turn into a hurricane in the first place. There are roughly 80 weak tropical waves or depressions that form in the Atlantic each year, only a half-dozen of which grow into hurricanes. Knowing which to target is impossible.
Even for Donald Trump, launching 80 nukes a year seems extreme.
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Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the author of RAVEN ROCK: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die. His next book, THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: An Oral History of 9/11, will be published next month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.