Fake news, or the best episode of Mythbusters ever? The normally close relationship between the White House and Axios has come under strain since the latter published a “scoop” last night. According to their administration sources, Jonathan Swan and Margaret Talev reported that Donald Trump had pressed on multiple occasions the idea of setting off nuclear explosions in the eyes of hurricanes in order to disperse them before they could do significant damage:
During one hurricane briefing at the White House, Trump said, “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” according to one source who was there. “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 source added, paraphrasing the president’s remarks.
- Asked how the briefer reacted, the source recalled he said something to the effect of, “Sir, we’ll look into that.”
- Trump replied by asking incredulously how many hurricanes the U.S. could handle and reiterating his suggestion that the government intervene before they make landfall.
- The briefer “was knocked back on his heels,” the source in the room added. “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?'”
Axios also reported that Trump brought it up in another meeting, and this time the minutes of a National Security Council meeting confirm the exchange. The suggestion went nowhere either time, for obvious reasons, but Swan and Talev also point out that Trump’s not the first to suggest the idea. It comes up so often, the Axios article notes, that National Geographic explained just how bad an idea it really is in November 2016, months before Trump even took office:
For starters, as NOAA observes, there’s the issue of radioactive fallout, which would “fairly quickly move with the trade winds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems.”
Also, it wouldn’t work. The key obstacle is the amount of energy required. The heat release from a hurricane is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes, NOAA calculates. In order to shrink a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane, you would have to add about a half ton of air for each square yard inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion (500,000,000) tons for an eye 25 miles in diameter. “It’s difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around,” NOAA says.
Today, international law prohibits us from even trying. The Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, signed and ratified by the United States in 1990, limits the yield of weapons for non-military purposes to 150 kilotons—a formal acknowledgement that you can’t fight Mother Nature, especially with nukes.
If Trump broached this idea in a couple of meetings, he wouldn’t be much different than many others who have done likewise. Still, Trump didn’t appreciate this scoop from Axios, and didn’t waste much time calling the Axios report “FAKE NEWS!” from the G-7 meeting:
Swan shot back that they had multiple sources and the NSC minutes as corroboration, plus had given the White House a nine-hour window before publication to respond:
Not to mention that we gave the White House press team full visibility of everything we were reporting nine hours before publication. We published their statement in the story. https://t.co/7cHF23YYRw
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) August 26, 2019
It’s almost certainly not “fake news,” but it’s also likely not “news” either. If Trump was spitballing about using nukes in a weather briefing, so what? He didn’t order nuclear launches; even by the terms of the Axios story, it seems as though Trump wanted to know whether it would work — a question that comes up often enough for NOAA and National Geographic to keep answering it. Even the Washington Post acknowledges that “the question seems to resurface every few years” and that the government has looked into the idea more than once. This looks like a leak designed to make Trump look unstable and dangerous rather than utilizing “out of the box” brainstorming … although it’s pretty darned far out of the box, admittedly.
Having read this, readers shouldn’t worry that Trump will drop nukes into the next hurricane. Perhaps they should be worried that Trump’s out of the box thinking might lead him to start asking why the Green New Deal won’t work. Naaah, never mind — no one believes that idea!