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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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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 1:09:42 PM
Re: The Great Wall of Oz
@zerox203- Exactly. You get the spirit. The point is not to worry about this idea specifically (though it is a fun place to start) but ot use it as the start of a discussion on major issues including climate change, public safety in an increasingly dangerous world as climate change takes hold, and the beed to take prevention seriously.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 1:05:33 PM
Re: Building walls
@SaneIT- I think that language is there because unlike the rest of the world, science likes to be careful with its words. That is the concensus on how they are formed. Even if the details aren't fyully worked out, we know tornadoes form in areas where cold and hot air masses meet and create a circular air mass. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 1:03:04 PM
Re: Lawsuits
@Gary_El- I know in reality, you don't need much of a reason to sue anyone these days, but what would be the legal grounds anyone would have to sue on for this?

Clearly, the thing is designed for public safety and the tennants of the space would be legal (whether agribusiness or others). Not sure how what grounds you'd have to stop it on.

Now, from a political point of view, I totally see it. The Keystone pipeline is a perfect example of how something can be delayed for years or even decades by politics regardless of which side of the political fence you are on.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 12:59:45 PM
Re: creative solution
@Impactnow- You're someone who believes. I like you. :)

It is admitedly difficult to test at full scale. The idea would be to create several real test walls scattered across the suggested path of the walls and monitor what happens to the air flow. And then slowly, we'd put more up and close the wall. Presumably, we'd see some of the issues, before the whole thing was built, but it wouldn't be cheap.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 12:55:53 PM
Re: Weather Changes
The Dutch Dike system is a perfect example of the type of "think big" system we need to be considering more of. It is widely considered the safest water control system in the world. It is over 350 miles of water control systems (in some places as much as 2 miles wide)  built since 1953. But there are hundreds of miles more that go back to as early as the 9th century and have held ever since. 

It is easy to look at every mistake man makes and assume everything will build after will be a mistake. It is also possible to look at successes that go back more than a thousand years and learn from them.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 12:16:56 PM
Re: creative solution
@impactnow: Now that may be possible, but what if the process damages the atmosphere? Since tornadoes are formed due to varying temperature winds being mixed with each other at varying speeds, and also the surrounding moisture, most of the controlling would have to be done at the lower atmosphere, and this would include dispersing chemicals or heat waves that evenly warm the mixing winds to avert a tornado.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 12:15:19 PM
Re: Building walls
@SaneIT: That would be insane. If such a project is undertaken, working models would have to be created first in wind blast tunnels. If the model fails then there's no question of spending 190 billion of stone walls. Better build sturdier buildings.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 12:13:25 PM
Re:Geekend: The Great Wall Of Oz
Some new technology. Next thing we'll come across is energy harvesting from tornadoes using portable windmills? Anything is possible. Rural damage from tornadoes would be averted if people would construct stone buildings instead of wood buildings. Woodwork costs more than stone anyway.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 11:31:22 AM
Re: The Great Wall of Oz
I think the value here is how easily it gets us all talking about something as important as climate change and our responsibility to the environment. When we talk about things like the Dutbowl (perfect example, Dave, and you made me want to watch that documentary), that really tugs at a core human issue we can't avoid - what do we owe back to the planet that gives us so much, will we ever fully understand it, and what our the consquences if we mess up? For some of these issues, it will not affect us, but instead, our children -what about our responsibility to them? Is technology or progress always the answer? A giant wall won't answer that question, but at least it will get us talking about it.

As for the wall itself, I'll agree that it's more sky than pie of an idea. Maybe it would work, scientifically, but the cost-benefit ends up awful sketchy any way you slice it. About offsetting the cost by putting people, vertical farming, etc. in it? It all seems very speculative - none of us are qualified to to talk about any of that, and as we've seen many times, often the 'experts' aren't either. As for the general notion that we should spend less money on war and more on humanitarian efforts? Here here, you won't find me disagreeing. Maybe it's not that simple, but I think in the year 2014 our priorities could do with a little re-evaluating at the least.
progman2000
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progman2000,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 8:54:29 AM
Re: Weather Changes
Well, it is silly and a little ridiculous, so there is probably a pretty good chance government throws some money at it...
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