Q: In the 1950s I saw a movie (perhaps “Slattery’s Hurricane” with Richard Widmark) about some men who fly into the eye of a hurricane to gain vital information that eventually saves Miami from much death and destruction. My question: Because a hurricane now can be spotted days in advance by radar, why couldn’t a plane fly into the eye and drop a 500-pound bomb or even shoot some subnuclear missile into it to blow it apart?
Edward McKenzie, of Troy
A: Because it would be like Lex Luthor trying to kill Superman with a BB gun (as long as the BBs weren’t made of kryptonite, of course).
If a hurricane were human, a 500-pound bomb — or even a 10-megaton nuclear device, for that matter — probably wouldn’t even tickle it, according to Chris Landsea (yes, that’s his real name), a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center at Florida International University. In fact, it might even make the hurricane stronger by just a tad. Here’s why:
After watching all those silly TV weathergeniuses holding on for dear life as they stand out in those gales, you, like most people, are focusing on the destructive winds that a hurricane unleashes. But, says Landsea, only 10 percent of a hurricane’s energy is converted into the mechanical energy that we know as wind.
Instead, 90 percent is heat energy. Why is that important? A hurricane gets its energy from the warm ocean water and through the process of water vapor condensing into rain droplets. The massive release of heat feeds this continuing process by warming the surrounding air, which causes more seawater to evaporate and condense as the hurricane continues to build in size and strength.
And just how much heat are we talking about? Let me boggle your mind with some numbers. A fully developed hurricane may generate heat at a rate of 50 or more trillion watts of heat energy at any given instant, which is equivalent to setting off a 10-megaton nuclear bomb every 20 minutes, Landsea estimated. By comparison, the entire human race in all of 2011 used only a third of the energy that you find in an average hurricane. As I hope you’re beginning to see, a 500-pound bomb would be like putting up a picket fence to stop a Sherman tank.
“The main difficulty with using explosives to modify hurricanes is the amount of energy required,” Landsea says.
If you really want to get scientific, inside a hurricane you always find extremely low air pressures. Under normal conditions, you have about 26,000 pounds of air pressing down on every square yard of surface. In a hurricane, it’s just 23,000 pounds. So to change a Category 5 hurricane into even a Category 2, you’d have to find some way to raise the pressure by forcing an additional half ton of air into every square yard inside the eye — or about half a billion tons for the average 12-mile-wide eye, Landsea says. Pardon the grammar, but you just ain’t gonna do that with a 500-pound bomb.
Even the most powerful nuclear bomb ever exploded — a 50-megatonner — likely wouldn’t be much help, and then, of course, you’d be releasing all kinds of nasty radiation that the hurricane would be more than happy to blow everywhere. And here’s the kicker: The heat released by those bombs would add to all that heat already in the storm, perhaps making it a touch more powerful.
Attacking weak tropical waves or depressions before they have a chance to grow into hurricanes isn’t promising either, Landsea says.
“About 80 of these disturbances form every year in the Atlantic basin, but only about five become hurricanes in a typical year. There is no way to tell in advance which ones will develop. If the energy released in a tropical disturbance were only 10 percent of that released in a hurricane, it’s still a lot of power, so that the hurricane police would need to dim the whole world’s lights many times a year.”
Don’t feel bad. Ever since the 1960s, so many people have suggested using bombs as a hurricane killer that Landsea’s answer is one of the most frequently read at the Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory site at www.aoml.noaa.gov. You’ll find everything you’ve always wanted to know about tropical storms there along with the reasons icebergs, hygroscopic particles, etc., won’t work, either.
How did the government’s Project Stormfury try to weaken hurricanes? Did it work?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: In 1971, Scott English took “Brandy,” a song he helped write, to No. 11 on the charts in England. It starts like this: “I remember all my life/Raining down as cold as ice/Shadows of a man/A face through a window ...” Sound familiar? If you’re a Barry Manilow fan, it probably does. In 1974, record producer Clive Davis suggested that the tune would be perfect for Manilow. The trouble was that just two years before, the group Looking Glass hit No. 1 with an entirely different song entitled “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Undeterred, Manilow changed Brandy to Mandy to avoid confusion and scored his first No. 1 Billboard Top 100 hit. (English’s version had only reached No. 91 in the U.S.) At first, English hated Manilow’s changes because Manilow took out two lines (“Riding on a country bus/ no one even noticed us”) so he could turn an entire verse into a bridge. But, English told an English interviewer, he later came to love Manilow’s version because all the royalties bought him lots of houses. By the way, English said the face in the window was his father.