A Brief History of Attempts to Attack the Weather

Trump walks out from under an awning as a staffer holds an umbrella for him.
Trump isn’t the first person to suggest we should attack the weather.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Sunday, Axios reported that President Donald Trump had suggested on multiple occasions that the U.S. use nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes in briefings with national security officials. “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?” the president said in one meeting, according to one of Axios’ sources. Another source claimed that a 2017 National Security Council memo detailing Trump’s conversation with a senior administration official also indicates that the president floated the idea of bombing hurricanes.

Luckily for all of us, administration officials reportedly never entered the idea into any formal policy processes, and Trump only pitched it in the first year or so of his presidency. Trump also labeled Axios’ story “ridiculous” and “phony” in two tweets on Monday. (Axios is standing by its reporting.)

Though the president may want to distance himself from a policy proposal that sounds more like a treatment for a Michael Bay blockbuster, he’s not the first person to suggest we should attack the weather before it attacks us. National Geographic has reported that in the 1960s, government agencies and scientists considered the prospect of sending a submarine to launch nukes into the eye of a hurricane. Security officials ended up passing on the idea because of its costs and potential collateral damage, and the 1990 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty currently prevents the U.S. from even pursuing the proposal.

Yet the suggestion still pops up every hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has even devoted an entire page on its website to answering the question “Why don’t we try to destroy tropical cyclones by nuking them?” There’s a pretty good answer: “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.” (Clearly it did need to be said.)

Beyond nuking hurricanes, there have been various proposals to not merely control the weather but to combat it. In the 1990s and early 2000s, renowned physicist Bernard Eastlund explored the idea of using a fleet of satellites to blast incipient tornadoes with microwave beams. Tornadoes form when a cold downdraft meets a warm updraft. Eastlund envisioned shooting microwaves at cold downdrafts to prevent them from feeding tornadoes with a conceptual technology that he termed the Thunderstorm Solar Power Satellite. Other researchers have suggested that such satellites could also theoretically change the course of a hurricane by charting a path of water heated by microwaves. Eastlund passed away in 2007 before he could see his concept become reality. The European Space Agency is now funding initial studies to design satellites that could transform solar energy into microwaves, similar to the design that Eastlund envisioned. But the aim is to use them as solar plants that can transmit power via microwave, rather than as tornado busters.

Academics have also proposed theories about how humans could more proactively respond to tsunamis. “You have to kill the tsunami when it’s still in the ocean,” University of Ottawa professor and former International Tsunami Society president Tad Murty told Earther in 2018. Murty was referring to an idea emerging in the natural disaster preparedness field to strategically place islands along a shore so that they slice up a tsunami before it reaches land. Some have suggested that countries could even gather up plastic waste in the oceans to create these islands. While this would be a somewhat defensive measure, Cardiff University mathematics lecturer Usama Kadri published a paper in 2017 detailing a more aggressive approach. Kadri’s calculations suggest that a cannon could shoot acoustic-gravity waves, which are extremely low frequency sound waves, at a tsunami to change its shape and disperse its energy over a larger area. The cannon would repeatedly fire at the tsunami until it disappears. Technology capable of producing acoustic-gravity waves powerful enough to kill a tsunami doesn’t exist yet, but Kadri told Earther that there are experiments in progress to develop a proof-of-concept design.

Clouds are another popular target of would-be weather fighters. In the 1950s, Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich began constructing guns in an attempt to harness the power of orgone, a pseudoscientific life force that purportedly powers the universe. Reich called his guns “cloudbusters” and claimed they could both help farmers stimulate rain and battle aliens. He died in prison after running afoul of the Food and Drug Administration by trying to ship orgone accumulators across state lines, but his legacy lives on in the Kate Bush song “Cloudbusting” and online manuals for building orgone guns. China was eventually able to actually construct a machine that induces rain, which it famously used to clear the skies prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In a decidedly more scientific project, the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing in Florida shot rockets at thunderclouds for more than a decade to trigger lightning strikes. Researchers equipped the rockets with a wire that attracted lightning, directing strikes to locations where they would cause less destruction. However, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency cut the center’s $2 million-a-year budget in 2017, which effectively ended the program.