Tornado Wall Is the Latest Zany Proposal to Break Up Storms

By Nick Wiltgen
Published: February 27, 2014

Giant East-West Walls

An American physics professor has proposed building giant walls to block air masses from clashing and contributing to the development of tornado-producing thunderstorms. (Photo credit: Digital Vision)

An American physics professor has proposed building giant walls to prevent tornadoes from forming in the United States. It's the latest in a series of quixotic suggestions offered over the decades by people dreaming of a way to sap storms of their destructive power – and it's research funded, in part, by American taxpayers.

Temple University professor Dr. Rongjia Tao, in a proposal to be presented March 5 at the American Physical Society's "March Meeting" in Denver, says that "if we build three east-west great walls in the American Midwest," 300 meters (1,000 feet) high and 50 meters (160 feet) wide, "we will diminish the tornado threats in the Tornado Alley forever."

Tao proposes building one wall in North Dakota, a second along the border between Kansas and Oklahoma and points to the east, and a third across south Texas and Louisiana. His idea is to block northbound warm air masses and southbound cold air masses from encountering each other. "As there is no mountain in Tornado Alley ranging from west to east to weaken or block such air flows, some encounters are violent, creating instability," Tao writes in the abstract previewing his March presentation.

Curiously, a footnote to Tao's proposal notes that his research is "supported in part by a grant from US Naval Research Lab."

Dr. Greg Forbes, severe weather expert at The Weather Channel, researched tornadoes under the tutelage of tornado science pioneer Dr. Ted Fujita. He doesn't think this proposal will get far.

"There are some east-west ridges in eastern Colorado (one is the Palmer Divide)," Forbes said. "Eddies to the north of the Palmer Divide when winds are from the southeast are a good breeding ground for tornadoes."

Tornado researcher Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., told USA Today's Doyle Rice that Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri still see tornadoes, despite the presence of east-west ridges similar in height to Dr. Tao's tornado wall.

Forbes also points out that tornadic supercells routinely form well away from the fronts that mark the clash of air masses. He notes the instability required for tornadic thunderstorms is mainly a function of vertical temperature differences from one level of the atmosphere to another, rather than horizontal differences in temperatures near the ground.

There have been other far-fetched proposals aiming to weaken or eliminate tornadoes in the past. Some of the zaniest ideas are on the next few pages.

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