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From Chinese hills, a $16 billion plan to stop deadly tornadoes

Despite negative feedback, professor says tornado walls could be effective in saving lives.

A lead researcher at the College of Science and Technology has stirred controversy in the field of meteorology for publishing a theory that he said, at the expense of $16 billion, could save lives and property from extreme weather in Tornado Alley. 

Physics department chair Rongjia Tao said he believes building three “Great Walls of America” 300 meters high – slightly taller than Philly’s Comcast Center – 50 meters thick and 100 miles long from east to west would act as a barrier and prevent the creation of a violent clash of warm and cold air known as a supercell, the type of weather that leads to tornadoes.

“The wall would not be built as a tornado shield; it’s meant to eliminate the formation of tornadoes,” Tao said.

Tao predicts that 50-meter thickness would be sufficient for the man-made wall. The wall would be constructed with materials like concrete, where in certain areas would model highway sound barriers and in other sections would use steel glass.

Due to the high cost of the walls, estimated by Tao to be $16 billion for 100 miles, construction would start locally in places like Joplin, Mo., that experience higher frequencies of severe tornadoes, and extend gradually, he said.

Tao said the cost of the walls would be “affordable based on the billions of dollars of damage caused by tornadoes each year.”

Tao’s proposal called for three such walls to be built – one in the northern part of Tornado Alley, one in the middle and one in the south.

Tornado Alley, a strip of land between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains that loses billions of dollars in damages each year due to tornadoes, is conducive to the weather phenomenon caused by the mixture of warm air from the Gulf of Mexico and cold air from Canada that sweeps unobstructed across the Great Plains every spring and summer. According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association, 903 tornadoes touched down in the United States in 2013, causing 55 deaths. The U.S. experiences an average of 1,264 tornadoes annually, causing an average of 57 deaths.

Tao, who was born in Shanghai, said he got the ideas for the walls from that country, where several mountain ranges soften the impact of air flows. Tao based the potential size of the walls off of the Jianghuai Hills, Yan Mountains and Nanling Mountains, which all have heights less than 300 meters high. In his study, Tao claims that “the wall with a height of 300 meters above the ground will do a good job in reducing tornado risk.”

“If these walls can reduce the number of tornadoes from 811 to three, I would consider that a huge success,” Tao said.

However, experts in the meteorological community have gaffed at Tao’s proposal, saying the extreme and costly engineering would be largely ineffective.

“I don’t have any idea how it could possibly work,” Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory, said. “There are lots of problems. There are already mountains and hills of that size that don’t seem to have much of an impact on [tornadoes]. It will just go right over the barrier –  it won’t stop at the barrier. It’s wrong on so many levels.”

Physics and chemistry professor John Perdew came to Tao’s defense on the proposal.

“Professor Tao has taken an original look at tornado formation from the perspective of a physicist who studies fluid flow,” Perdew said. “His claims are backed by evidence, and can only be challenged by counter-evidence. Further studies should be made to determine if the construction of ‘great walls’ in the central U.S., mimicking the east-west mountain ranges of China, can indeed prevent the devastation caused here by strong tornadoes.”

As far as next steps, a large amount of lab, computer simulations and tests would need to be completed to ensure the reliability of the walls.

“We can do lab tests, but you clearly cannot generate a tornado by yourself,” Tao said.

Logan Beck can be reached at logan.beck@temple.edu.

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