A History of Plans to Nuke Hurricanes (and Other Stuff Too)

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.