Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dumb Idea Chronicles: The Great Anti-Tornado Wall Of America

Tornado season is fast approaching in the United States, that potentially deadly time of year in the spring and early summer when large twisters level towns and cause general chaos across sections of the Great Plains, Midwest and South.
A tornado that was at an elevation of 11,900 feet
on Mt. Evans in Colorado in 2012. Mountains don't
necessarily stop tornadoes.  

It would be nice if we could prevent these destructive monsters, but we can't.

A guy named Rongjia Tao of Temple Univesity wants to try, though.

His thought: Erect three huge east to west walls across the central United States, one around North Dakota, the other near the Kansas-Oklahoma State line, and one around Texas and Louisiana.

He's going to present this idea to the American Physical Society in Denver this week, but pretty much everybody agrees this idea won't fly.

Tao's idea is that cold winds blast down from the north, and humid, warm winds come up from the south. The air masses collide, and that helps set off tornadoes.  He says his walls would block the winds, and thereby prevent the tornadoes from forming.

That's a oversimplication on my part, but Tao's got the basic idea about the winds right. But his proposed walls, each 1,000 feet all and 150 feet wide stretching across the Plains, though huge, won't disrupt the tornadoes. They're not nearly big enough. And even really HUGE walls might not make a difference.

Maybe these walls would briefly screw up a very weak tornado, maybe. But not a big one. And face it, who cares if a lame tornado rips one branch off a tree in the middle of nowhere?  But we do care very much when a powerful tornado levels a town and kills people. Tao's walls won't prevent that kind of tragedy.

Mountain range often don't stop or disrupt tornadoes, and mountain ranges are bigger than even Tao's proposal.

From USA Today:

"'It wouldn't work' tornado researcher Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, OK said in an email

Brooks said that China has deadly tornadoes despite the east-west mountain ranges there. In additon, he said, tornadoes still occur in parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri despite the presense there of smaller east-west mountain ranges similar in size to Tao's proposed walls."

Brooks added: "This is essentially a case of a physicist, who may be very good in hsi sub discipine, talking about a subject about which he is abysmally ignorant."

Tornadoes often form more because of changes in temperature and wind direction as you go up vertically, rather than changes in temperature as you move from south to north.

Worse, some east-west mountain ranges could actually enhance the formation of tornadoes.

According to Wunderground:

"There are some east-west ridges in eastern Colorado, one is the Palmer Divide," (The Weather Channel's severe storm expert Dr. Greg) Forbes said. "Eddies to the north of the Palmer Divide when winds are from the southeast are a good breeding ground for tornadoes."

Here's a video (below) demonstrating how a hill can't really stop a tornado.  A strong tornado had just left Springfield, Mass in June, 2011. It scales a hill, and you can see it's not weakening. The person who shot the video ducked for cover once the tornado crested the hill and cut off the video.

Good thing: The tornado came down the hill at full strength and caused major damage to houses and other buildings in Monson, Mass. Watch, (but turn down the volume because the videographer added annoying music and sounds to the video):

Moreover, the cost of Tao's walls might far exceed the cost of the tornados the United States gets every year. It would cost maybe $60 billion for every 100 miles of wall built. And good luck getting the environmental and other permits, and obtaining the land to do this from the thousands of property owners that would be affected.

So for now, we're going to live with our current methods of dealing with tornadoes. That is, have the National Weather Service and other meteorologists issue warnings that a tornado is forming, and hope people get out of the way and into their basements and don't get killed.

For good measure, here's an even more dramatic tornado video than the one above. This one is a powerful twister having no trouble tearing up houses on a steep hill near West Liberty, Kentucky in March, 2012:

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