June 24, 2014
Could A ‘Great Wall’ System Protect Tornado Alley In The Future?
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Comprised of a relatively narrow swath of land bordered on the east by the Appalachian Mountains, on the west by the Rockies and extending from central Texas as far north as North Dakota, Tornado Alley sees its fair share of activity each year. And when you compare the vast difference in the total number of tornadoes that are visited on Europe and China, 57 and 3 for 2013 respectively to the 811 that touched down in the US, one enterprising researcher, Professor Rongjia Tao of Temple University's Department of Physics dared to ask if there wasn't any way to eliminate the destructive threat of tornadoes in this region.
Using the cost of construction for the 974 foot Comcast Center in Philadelphia as a guide, Tao believes the construction of each wall could be completed for around $160 million - far less, he claims, than the costs associated with the most destructive tornadoes whose cost from damages and rebuilding have often soared into the realm of multiple billions of dollars.
Tao's understanding of Tornado Alley centers around it being what he terms a 'zone of mixing'. This area sees a northward flow of warm and moist air from the Gulf of Mexico that mixes with the colder, drier air coming south from Canada. The long and mostly flat corridor allows, according to Tao, both air masses to violently crash into one another creating vortex turbulence.
Speaking with redOrbit via telephone, Jacob Wycoff, meteorologist for EarthNetworks, the company behind the popular WeatherBug application, shared his thoughts on Tao's latest research which originally pre-released in February of this year. Addressing what he termed the 'fallacy of the researchers,' Wycoff claimed they lacked a basic “understanding of how atmosphere behaves.” Continuing, he explained, “He dumbed down the clash of hot air and cold air as how tornadoes form. There is a lot more physics involved. A one-thousand foot wall doesn't address high altitude air masses.”
Instead, Tao's research seems only to focus on slowing the moving air masses as they approach one another. “If both cold wind and warm wind have speeds of 30 miles/h, the chance to develop tornadoes from the clash is very high,” he claims. “On the other hand, if both winds are moving below 15 miles/h, there is almost no chance for the clash to develop into tornadoes. Hence reducing the wind speed and eliminating the violent air mass clashes are the key to prevent tornado formation in Tornado Alley. We can learn from Nature how to do so.”
Citing similar latitudinal global placement, Tao compares the US's Tornado Alley to China's Eastern Plain. He contends the Eastern Plain would be subject to the same tornadic activity as Tornado Alley but for a few geographical features. The Eastern Plain is bordered on the north and south by east-west running mountain ranges as well as another east-west range right in the middle of the plain. Tao believes the mountains are effective at breaking the warm and cold air masses up so that they never gain enough speed to produce powerful cyclones.
The middle range, the Jiang-Huai Hills, while only 300 meters above sea-level, are instrumental in protecting the area from tornadoes. Tao then cites anecdotal evidence as scientific fact when he explains the Jiang-Huai Hills do not have a run as far east as the Pacific coast of China. Ending before the shoreline, these hills therefore yield to a flatland area that is a mini-Tornado Alley. “The city of Gaoyou in this area has a nickname 'Tornado Hometown', which has tornado outbreaks once in two years on average,” he explained in a recent statement. “It is thus clear that Jiang-Huai Hills are extremely effective in eliminating tornado formation.”
Tao's above conjecture is the entire basis for his hypothesis that creating man made mountains on our central plain will magically end our annually occurring season of severe weather. “Climatologically speaking,” EarthNetwork's Wycoff stated, “The US is the leader for tornadoes. Europe gets tornadoes. China doesn't have the same moisture field [as the US, France and Italy] to go into their cold dry air.”
The research presented by Tao also highlights two mountainous (or hilly, at least) areas within Tornado Alley that he claims protect the surrounding areas from adverse weather and tornadoes. However, as Wycoff notes, the idea that tornadoes do not occur in mountainous areas is simply erroneous. West Virginia, a state we can all agree is particularly mountainous, has experienced over 120 individual tornado touchdowns between the years 1950 and 2012. “It's a fallacy that tornadoes will not go through mountains,” Wycoff said. “They will.”
Even still, Tao calls for the initial building of three of his great walls to eliminate the threat present in Tornado Alley. “The first one should be close to the northern boundary of the Tornado Alley, maybe in North Dakota,” he explains. “The second one should be in the middle, maybe in the middle of Oklahoma and going east. The third one can be in the south of Texas and Louisiana.”
Even though Wycoff believes the walls will do little if anything to prevent tornadoes, both Wycoff and Tao understand that immediate local climates could be affected by these structures. “Such great walls may affect the weather,” Tao notes, “but their effect on the weather will be minor. In fact, with scientific design, we may also use these walls to improve the local climate.”
Taking the more measured approach, Wycoff stated, “You can't just hop into something as massive as this without understanding the negatives. You will have local-scale issues with sun and wind.” Continuing, he asked, “Would the walls prevent wind from powering wind farms that have already been invested in?” Discussing the physics of natural land barriers and other obstructions, Wycoff explained how rain occurs as clouds are forced over structures. “Are you forcing the climate downwind to get rain and the side on the other side of the wall to get none,” he posited. “It could have drastic effects on people who rely on current rain models for farms or livestock.”
Wycoff believes the proposed $160 million price tag for Tao's great walls would be better spent on investment in new technologies in weather prediction and safer construction projects and methods. “Again, I would reiterate that money would be better used in improving our predictions, disseminating warnings and building protective structures.” Tao's idea, according to Wycoff, lacks a basic understanding of the physics of meteorology. “If his understanding is flawed, what does that say about his whole methodology? This would be a situation where the cure is worse than the disease.”