I was born in Tornado Alley, and one of my earliest memories is camping out in our basement during a storm warning, watching the Wizard of Oz, of all things, and quietly waiting for a twister to tear through the roof. It never did, but that dread is still palpable. When you live in the Midwest during tornado season, the air always seems a little pregnant with disaster.
As such, I can empathize with Temple University physicist Rongjia Tao's utopian proposal to build three massive, 1,000-foot high, 165-foot thick walls around the American Midwest, in order to keep the tornadoes out. In a rendering of the anti-tornado wall Tao sent me, it looks like this:
In a paper he recently published in the International Journal of Modern Physics B, Tao points to two regions of China, the Northern and Eastern China Plains, that have a similar geographic location as the Midwest—but far fewer tornadoes. The difference, he says, is that China's plains are surrounded by three east-west mountain ranges, which slow down passing winds enough to prevent tornados from forming.
Tao, then, is essentially suggesting we build mountain range-sized walls across Tornado Alley—a superstructure that he says could end tornado disasters in the region altogether. See, the notoriously windy American region lies right in "the zone of mixing," with warm, moist air blowing north from the Gulf, and cold air heading southbound. When the winds collide, they can create vortex turbulence, which can spawn major tornadoes.
If there were 1,000 foot tall walls running east-to-west in the region—like the mountain and hill ranges that do so in China—it would theoretically break up that flow, preventing the winds from becoming strong enough to form deadly tornadoes. Tao points out that in 2013, there were 811 tornadoes in the US, most of them in Tornado Alley. In China, there were three.
"In an ideal world," Tao told me in an email, "we should build three walls in Tornado Alley: the first one should be close to the northern boundary of the Tornado Alley, maybe in North Dakota. The second one should be in the middle, maybe in the middle of Oklahoma and going to east. The third one can be in the south of Texas and Louisiana."
"Building the three great walls will eventually eliminate major tornadoes in the entire Tornado Alley."
Building three unfathomably massive anti-tornado walls would count as the infrastructure project of the decade, if not the century. It would be also be exceedingly expensive, and right now we can barely manage upkeep on the bridges and highways we've already got. The Atlantic's John Metcalfe, who says "It's maybe not such a dumb idea," also notes that the "price and labor of erecting these super-walls would be so monstrous that Tao had better be conducting a second study about it right now."
So is Tao serious? Absolutely. "Building such walls are feasible," he said. "They are much easier than constructing a skyscraper. For example, in Philadelphia, the newly completed Comcast building has about 300 meter height. The wall with similar height as the Comcast building should be much easier to be constructed."
He believes that once they're built, they would all but put an end to tornado fatalities.
"In 2011, 553 people perished due to tornadoes," he said, and "most of them were in Joplin, MO. Tornadoes in USA killed 68 people in 2012 and 53 in 2013. Most of these fatalities were in Tornado Alley. If there were such walls, almost all of them could be saved. Especially, with the walls, we could eliminate tornado disasters." He also points out that tornadoes cost billions and billions of dollars, and the walls could eventually save the country money.
Although he firmly believes in the project, Tao recognizes that it's a long shot. "While building the three great walls will eventually eliminate major tornadoes in the entire Tornado Alley, it is unrealistic to expect such huge project to start in near future because of the costs and other factors," he said.
But he also points out that there are small parts of the region already sheltered from tornadoes, by the Ozark mountains. So there's no reason we can't start small, and expand, he says. "On the other hand, it is more realistic to build such walls locally at high tornado risk areas, such Joplin, then extend and connect the walls."
Those may never get built, either, but I'm still glad thinkers like Tao are going big—it's rare that a professor steps forward with the moonshot chutzpah to announce that he can make tornadoes extinct in America. Plus, his proposal may inspire other physicists to follow-up, and uncover cheaper, more pragmatic tornado-killers. Even if we never see mountainous cyclone barricades lining the Midwest, at least we know an engineering solution may someday be possible.
Correction: This article originally misidentified the university Dr. Tao teaches at as Drexel. We regret the error.