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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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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 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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User Rank: Author
6/27/2014 | 12:08:43 PM
Half Baked?
I don't think this idea, as fascinating as it is, is baked at all, nor could it ever be. Even assuming that such a massive structure or series of structures would actually prevent or diminish tornadoes (big assumption), it'll probably just tick off Mother Nature in other ways -- who knows what other adverse weather patterns/conditiions it would create, in the Great Plains and/or elsewhere. Then there's the flawed economics: Millions of people aren't going to move to these structures with their surrounding shopping malls just because the government decided to build them in the middle of no where. Taxpayers (or mountains of more debt) would foot the entire bill. I won't even go into the aesthetics. 
User Rank: Ninja
6/27/2014 | 12:05:58 PM
Punch Line?
I thought this was a joke, I kept waiting for the punch line!

This is about as good as dropping nukes in to Hurricanes, and any of countless other wacky schemes to control the weather. Imagine having a series of 1000 foot walls spanning the Great Plains. That would be a weird thing indeed.

Changing weather involves a scale that we are not able to deal with, and complexities far beyond our current understanding.
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