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6/27/2014
10:11 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: The Great Wall Of Oz

Can giant walls stop tornadoes and bring an economic boost to the Midwest?

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After Ballmer: 8 Execs You Love To Hate
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Maybe he has watched too much Game of Thrones, Sharknado, or The Wizard of Oz. A scientist from Temple University, Rongjia Tao, has hatched a crazy (but genius) plan to stop tornadoes in the US plains by building huge, sprawling walls to simulate the effect of mountains.

The US is hit by about 1,200 tornadoes each year, killing an average of 60 people, injuring another 1,500, and causing $400 million in damages. In 2011 alone, three mega-twisters caused more than $6 billion in damages.

Before we go into Tao's plan, here's a great video on why the US has so many tornadoes and how they form:

As the video shows in detail, tornadoes are formed when winds of two different speeds and temperature collide. Tao maintains that one way to stop this from happening is to interrupt the airflow when the winds collide. He studied other regions similar to the US that have confluences of cold and warm air but have fewer tornadoes. What he discovered is that many of these areas have walls of mountains, specifically three sets in China, that prevent the air from mixing in such a violent way. In places where the mountains don't interrupt the airflow, the tornadoes are worse.

[Can you tell the difference between parody and truth? Read Geekend: Onion Or Real?]

As for the walls Tao suggests building to simulate the effect of mountains, they might look something like this:

I'm only partially joking. While the Game of Thrones walls are said to be miles high, Tao's walls would still be an imposing 984 feet high and 164 feet wide, tying them with the 90th tallest building in the world and the 15th tallest building in the US. Only four US cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston) have buildings that tall. (Side note: This is why I think the multi-mile-high walls in Game of Thrones are by far the least believable aspect of the story. I'd sooner believe in dragons and trees with faces than believe that a pre-industrial society could build a wall that high.)

If Tao has done his math right, something like this will happen (watch it all the way through):

OK, it won't quite be like that, but Tao's walls would break the wind patterns. But to do that, they would need to be miles long and run across three major tornado sources, in Oklahoma, North Dakota, and parts of Texas and Louisiana. So we're not just talking the height of these buildings, but their massive lengths.

The idea is genius even if a bit out there. The walls could include housing and weather shelters, even schools and shopping. Towns and cities in the area could move some of their most vulnerable buildings into these secure structures. If you can add some economic value to these walls rather than just make them pointless brick walls, there's no reason they can't house entire cities.

Before we get carried away, how much will these structures cost? Would the cost of the wall far surpass the savings from avoiding tornadoes? Tao doesn't think so. By taking account of the cost of a similar building in Philadelphia, he estimates that a one-mile, 1,000-foot wall would cost around $160 million. Bear in mind that unlike a building that people work in, most of the structure can be solid, without duct work or electricity, so they're easier and cheaper to build. Tao says that if you compare the cost to the billions of dollars in recent tornado losses, it seems doable.

But here's the problem: The three mountain ranges that Tao studied totaled 1,056 miles in length. If it took 1,000 miles of mountains

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/2/2014 | 7:17:47 AM
Re: Building walls
Years ago we had talks about companies who wanted to go out and seed a hurricane or disrupt its formation and IIRC they were shut down by several government departments for obvious reasons.  You can't exactly go dumping chemicals from the sky at will.   The US government even tried this years ago with a project called Storm Fury and it was determined that it just wasn't worth the effort.  The expense was a fixed cost in the billions for what might be a chance to stop a once in a decade storm.  I suspect the wall suffers from this same problem.  It won't stop every tornado and the ones that end up weaker because of the wall will be few and far between.  I'm not saying that dreaming up big ideas like this is pointless, I love to read about a fanciful solution for big problems but it's a hard sell to say the least.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
7/1/2014 | 1:47:32 PM
Re: Lawsuits
Well, if this thing can stop hurricanes, it will probably affect other weather events, too. A regional farming business might get colder or hotter temperatures, or receive more or less rain. It will affect crop yield, probably for the worse. The result? A lawsuit, and ultimately, a Supreme Court Ruling on causing deliberate climate change.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/1/2014 | 12:04:09 PM
Re: Building walls
@SaneIT- It absolutely would spin up bigger storms if it was an uninterupted smooth wall. It would act like a scoop and send air straight up which is bad. But if you break up the wall, make sure it has shape and texture,  etc, you could avoid that. Just like Manhattan doesn't act like a giant wind scoop.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/1/2014 | 12:02:03 PM
Re: Building walls
@SaneIT- I think the obvious answer is that they cost $190 billion. :)

No seriously, here's the problem. To stop giant storms you need a giant system. To make a giant system it costs a lot of money and you have to admit that you can't promise it works until it stands up to the first storm. So no one wants to pay for the experiment. Rinse and repeat.

I get that. But at one point or another we're going to have to trust someone if we want to stop this.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/1/2014 | 7:39:07 AM
Re: Building walls
@ yalanand, I can see some issues that will not be seen in wind tunnel testing.  I know it was mentioned in the blog post but you're pretty much building a mountain ridge across the plains.  The animals displaced, people displaced and foliage destroyed to put this wall up is going to be a real issue.  Another issue I see that maybe a wind tunnel could show if they spend long enough testing the angles of the wind against the wall is making storms worse as I mentioned before.  If you've ever been between two tall buildings when the wind is blowing you know that the wind speeds up between those buildings.  I wonder if putting that wall in the wrong spot could actually spin up even bigger storms at  either end of the wall as super fast winds come off the wall.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/1/2014 | 7:32:44 AM
Re: Building walls
@David, that could be, but if I'm spending $190 billion I need more than "this might work".  Having lived through several hurricanes there always seems to be someone talking about how they could stop the storms or change their path but I have yet to see someone actually do it.  Given the cost of repairing all the damage done by a hurricane it would make sense to kill the storm before it makes landfall so why haven't we seen a storm killing system yet?
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 3:38:34 PM
Re: The Great Wall of Oz
Hahahaha! A classic David! One of my favorite fear-tactic PSAs!
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 3:37:40 PM
Re: Weather Changes
Global Warming is as Big a Hoax as there is.

Climate Change on the other hand is the real deal.


Isn't global warming a particular aspect of climate change?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 3:05:34 PM
Re: The Great Wall of Oz
@vnewman2- Love it! Also, "This is your plain without walls. This is your plain with walls. Any questions?"
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 2:13:58 PM
Re: The Great Wall of Oz
Hmmmm...I forsee a government marketing campaign here: "If you build it, they won't come..." Catchy, no?
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