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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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nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
6/28/2014 | 2:21:22 AM
Re: Weather Changes
I think the idea is not doable. The lenhth of 1056 miles is not a small tally. I believe that you cannot predict mother nature what it has stored for us. I believe that better ideas will be a underground city :).

Do you feel that its doable. Lets debate.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
6/27/2014 | 11:15:28 PM
Re: Weather Changes
I'm skeptical how these walls would hold up in a strong earthquake.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
6/27/2014 | 11:13:03 PM
Re: Weather Changes
I think we also need to be more respectful of other aspects of the environment. Such as: recycling, polluting the water and air, not littering, conserving energy, saving the rain forests, etc.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
6/27/2014 | 11:04:13 PM
Re: Weather Changes
It is true. Years ago, I never worried about natural disasters,until recent years when I noticed more than one first hand. It seems like natural disasters have also increased in its frequency around the world, unless the news coverage is just making such stories more prevalent. I hope we can find more ways to prevent global warming and natural disasters. It's devastating.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/27/2014 | 6:40:34 PM
Re: Weather Changes
@tekedge- It's true. As the climate change will repeatedly make disasters worse, we need to start thinking bigger and raising awareness. A giant wall might not be the right answer, but something big better happen or we're all in toruble.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/27/2014 | 6:39:24 PM
Re: Half Baked?
@Lorna- That's what I think. Though i wonder if that wouldn't create the world's scariest laser as the sun was gathered and reflected by a giant wall. We'd be like the ant in the magnifying glass. Still, I think the idea of adding on to what would otherwise be just a brick wall is the way to go.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
6/27/2014 | 5:18:24 PM
Re: Half Baked?
If we top the walls with solar panels, all the better. 
tekedge
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tekedge,
User Rank: Moderator
6/27/2014 | 4:18:58 PM
Weather Changes
Interesting facts about this much worrisome aspect of enviornment. Loved the optimism that there could be solutions. Having said that to bring this awareness among the world community and convincing them to work towards solutions is such a massive task that it is frightening. But thx for bringing bac the optimism for working towards a better enviornment
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/27/2014 | 2:14:22 PM
Re: Half Baked?
@Rob- No, that's why the walls can't be empty shells. If you added vertical farming or another industry that created jobs and was also sustainable it changes the balance of the equation. 

I'll be the firs tto admit that if you can't get people to the walls it is too expensive to do anything worthwhile.

As for the environmental impact, that's where I'm more inclined to agree with you. As I said, the dust bowl is a big warning against this. We'd have to be very careful. 

That said, I feel like this is just a part of human existence. One of the reasons the car was incented (and it was marketed this way early in its existence) was to help get the horse poop off the street. It was a response to a change in the environment humans caused. Then the car put CO2 in the air and we're building electric cars and we're building wind turbines to power the electric cars. Now we're findign out the wind turbines are changing the weather where they are. No doubt, we'll find that solar panels en masse will do the same thing.

What will we do? We'll continually find that our solution to one problem creates a new one. And then, we'll solve that one. 

Is that sustainable? I guess it depends on whether you are an optimist or not. But we solved the dust bowl problem. So I don't see why if you have something which will create solutions to problems (in this case, the lack of food and danger form natural disaster) why you don't try to solve that problem first and then solve the next consquences when they come.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/27/2014 | 2:06:00 PM
Re: Punch Line?
@somedude8- Granted, it is difficult to test, and it may not work. And frankly that's why we'll never do it, because we're not going to try a $200 billion experiment.

That said, man made structures and much small land features change the weather all the time. One only has to watch the fog go into San Francisco to see what happens. Large cities actually alter the weather quite a bit. Concrete absorbs heat differently than soil. For instance, the average temperature of Brooklyn and Westchester differ by over 3 degrees despite being just a few miles apart. 

Three degrees of air temp difference over such a short range produces major effects on air patterns.



Since we're talking about cold air and hot air mixing, changing those absorbtion properties of the surrounding lan and breakign up the wind will have a major effect.

Simulations (and observaitons in similar areas) say this will work. 
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