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Could great walls prevent tornadoes forming in the American Midwest?


June 30, 2014

A study conducted by Dr Rongjia Tao from Temple University suggests that 1,000 ft (300 m) high walls constructed in Tornado Valley could help prevent the formation of the destructive wind storms (Photo: Shutterstock)

A study conducted by Dr Rongjia Tao from Temple University suggests that 1,000 ft (300 m) high walls constructed in Tornado Valley could help prevent the formation of the destructive wind storms (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Great Wall of China was primarily built to keep out nomadic tribes, but a new study suggests constructing great walls in the American Midwest could keep out a different kind of threat – tornadoes. It might sound far-fetched, but a study conducted by Dr. Rongjia Tao from the Department of Physics at Philadelphia's Temple University suggests there is in fact some scientific merit to it. Strategically placed, 1,000 ft (300 m) high great walls could negate the forming of the destructive wind storms in Tornado Alley, and by extension, the destruction they leave in their wake.

A piece of land stretching from north to south nestled between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain ranges, Tornado Alley is home to more than its fair share of violent weather events. According to Tao, the majority of the 811 tornadoes in the US in 2013 occurred in Tornado Alley, a result of its location in the so-called "zone of mixing."

This is dictated by atmospheric circulation that results in a clashing of warm, northbound airflow with cold air blowing to the south. This clash results in vortex turbulence, which can then often evolve into a full-blown tornado. Tao observed that when the warm and cold air flows are each blowing at speeds of 30 mph (48 km/h) or higher, the chance of the clash resulting in a tornado was very high. Conversely, at speeds below 15 mph (24 km/h), the chance of a tornado forming was almost non-existent.

Tao's solution to obstructing these air flows is inspired by east-west mountain ranges which serve to protect the Northern and Eastern China Plains from severe tornadoes. These regions of China are also located in the zone of mixing, but suffer a much lower incidence of wind storms (just three tornadoes were confirmed in China in 2013). Tao attributes this contrast to the mountains stifling the north and south-bound flows of air.

It is the view of Tao that the effect of these east-west mountain ranges can be replicated to prevent vortex turbulence in Tornado Valley. He estimates that three great walls, each measuring 1,000 ft (300 m) high and 164 ft (50 m) wide, would be sufficient – one along the northern boundary of Tornado Alley in North Dakota, a second in the middle of Oklahoma and a third in the south, located in either Texas or Louisiana.

So is Tao's idea feasible, or is it mostly just hot air? Aesthetics aside, there are obvious implications of constructing these mega-walls. He argues that the effect on the weather would be minor, and that the walls may even serve to enhance the climate in the region. But interfering with the natural weather systems in such a way would be sure to draw its share of opposition, not unlike the idea of geoengineering the climate to mitigate impacts of global warming.

As for the cost, Tao estimates US$160 million would be required to construct each wall, though he argues this would be insignificant compared to the billions in damage caused by the regular tornadoes that strike the area.

While he doesn't anticipate the great walls being constructed any time soon, Tao is hopeful that his findings will lead to Tornado-prevention initiatives in one form or another. He suggests not-so-great walls be first built in high-risk tornado areas, and then eventually connected piece by piece until the entire region is protected. He also recommends that in the planning of any new cities in Tornado Alley, skyscrapers first be constructed along an east-west axis to serve as a protective wall and prevent tornado formation in the area.

Tao's study was supported in part by the US Naval Research Lab and the paper was published in the International Journal of Modern Physics B.

Source: World Scientific

About the Author
Nick Lavars Nick was born outside of Melbourne, Australia, with a general curiosity that has drawn him to some distant (and very cold) places. Somewhere between enduring a winter in the Canadian Rockies and trekking through Chilean Patagonia, he graduated from university and pursued a career in journalism. Having worked for publications such as The Santiago Times and The Conversation, he now writes for Gizmag from Melbourne, excited by tech and all forms of innovation, the city's bizarre weather and curried egg sandwiches. All articles by Nick Lavars

Another geoengineering psychosis. Such 'Babel' concepts can not be defended by even a 'good intentions' label. The reality is just plain nuts.

Robert Walther

The trick is to build it quickly enough so that it doesn't get destroyed by a tornado before it is complete. Good luck to everyone on that one!


I'm sure the architects can get inspiration from Devil's Tower and design into it hotel rooms, glass walk, BASE jumping, restaurants, etc. But, I think tornadoes are too much a part of American culture to say good riddance to.


Why not use wind farms to absorb, and disperse wind energy accumulation?

Jon Catling

More than that, thk, what would be the implications elsewhere in the US?

Noel K Frothingham

+1 Jon Catling Wind farms are the smart way to use the energy rather than just trying to block it. We need Wind Farm Walls strategically placed in certain directions laid out exactly like thy might lay out the wall.

Sean Reynolds

If you wish to prevent tornadoes between those three walls, they'll need to be about 100 yards apart. There are hundreds of thousands of square miles in danger from tornadoes.

Tornadoes can touch down anywhere, not just in the right spot to hit a hypothetical wall. There's no way that adding three very tall walls will do any more than inconvenience locals who will then live in the shadow of stupidity,


Robert, right on. Amazing to think someone got paid to come up with his idea.

Dave Hanna

I would build mountains rather than walls... landfills to start... Besides... bulldozing is fun!

John Kline Kurtz

Well, what about HAARP? After all, there is smart slick video on youtube which has a long list of supporters and lists The US Naval Research Lab. and the Air Force Research Lab as sources or backers. Seems that one scientist felt the HAARP manipulations of the weather might have a deleterious effect on the wether, especially in view of the butterfly effect. In other words, such big efforts as HAARP puts forth can really mess up every thing climate-wise.

dr. james willingham

I wonder if this would actually create tornado's, much like how the downstream end of bridges the water swirls.


If the wind would respond this way, could we aim these at certain "safe" areas for the storm to use up its energy without causing as much damage.


This idea is as close to total lunacy as any I have heard of in years. A far smarter idea would be to strongly encourage individuals and municipalities in the tornado alley to rebuild with insulated concrete forms ONLY. ICFs are easy, fast, inexpensive, and totally resistant to winds up to 200mph. Appropriate incentives should be put in place to see that all new or replacement building can meet a 200mph wind load. For exactly the same logic as the new rules for rebuilding the New Jersey shore towns in the literal wake of super storm Sandy, tornado alley should be building tough. And the least cost solution is to use Insulated Concrete Form technology. Proposing to build 1000 foot high wind barriers is sheer lunacy and a gigantic waste of money and material.


You would have to be quick off the mark if you were sheltering in the lee of one of these monstrosities and it started to fall over. In a more serious vein - no, sorry - nothing serious comes to mind. I mean, 1000 foot high walls, indeed! Just imagine the cost of the scaffolding.

Mel Tisdale

I like the idea of building high landfills. Then, if a tornado struck, we would just get all our shit back.


Or place communities under domes & erect wind deflecter panels to drive tornadoes away from area?? See Logans Run movie, 1976 of dome city model for Midwest

Stephen Russell

Hey Mel, imagine the footprint size.

Noel K Frothingham

300m tall and 50m wide? That's not a wall, that's a tower. It's also completely ridiculous to think 3 of them would have any effect on the weather. Maybe the 50m wide is a misprint. Even so, it's ridiculous. As has been stated above, the smart solution would be to mandate a tornado resistant building code for all new construction where this is an issue.

Siegfried Gust

How about everyone who wants to live in a tornado alley build their homes and businesses under ground or under large mounds of dirt. Utilities would also need to be under ground. My reasoning is that I have yet to see anything underground damaged by a tornado, so it's probably safe from them.

Temujin Kuechle

Walls this large would be blown over within a year. However, it is interesting what natural contours do to the weather. I live near the highest point in my county which is only 700 feet. The surrounding area is only 20-50 feet lower. This makes an interesting dividing line for snow and rainfall which differ by 2-4 inches in just a mile along this ridge sometimes dividing north to south and other times east to west. It also seems to steer severe weather just north and south of it. To the north the tornadoes come from the northwest, to the south, the tornadoes come from the southwest. If anything this low east-west ridge causes even more tornadoes than the surrounding landscape. 30 miles south of this area, a river valley seems to funnel a disproportionate amount of tornadoes along its lower eastern bank. One small town was hit three years in a row. Micro-meteorology is an interesting subject and not often considered or understood. Some areas seem to have natural cycles of severe weather. Maybe some day a super computer will be able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.


Cannot see the funding appearing, but it would look fantastic for 'space tourists' - like a giant maze for lab rats! Would make a brilliant challenge for ultralight pilots as well How about Red Bull funding it for a different form of Skyrace? Get well above it in big blimps for the spectators. L.O.L.

The Skud

This could be solved structurally. Build large basements and structurally sound buildings. Place a steel reinforced room in the basement as a storm shelter (that would withstand the collapse of the structure). The displaced dirt could be used to build mounds next to the building to help dampen the wind.

I don't live in a tornado area but the guy who built my house was paranoid so the middle part of my basement is lower than the rest and has a steel reinforced concrete room in the middle of it. The rest of the house wouldn't survive a strong tornado but that room isn't going anywhere.


I live in an area less prone to tornadoes. I would worry that if walls were constructed to prevent the climate to make the tornadoes, the consequences could lead to moving "zone of mixing" to a different region....maybe to my peaceful region.


Even if it would work the environmental cost of building the walls would out weigh the benefits. And who is suppose to cough up the money to build them?

@ flink The walls would disrupt the airflow for hundreds of miles in theory it prevents tornadoes from forming not control where they touch down.

@ Siegfried Gust 300m tall and 50m wide and thousands of kilometers long.


While I agree that a macroengineering project of this scope is simple insanity and the cost of $160 million put forth is ridiculously naive (My town just built two 6 A highschools for 140 million), I see merit in the idea that a smaller wall might protect a populated area like a city. I live near Huntsville AL which statistically is the most dangerous in the US for tornado damage. A wall or a mound or a wind farm strategically placed to ward off tornados might be worthy of consideration. I wonder if anyone has a weather model working well enough to make predictions about such a project?

An interesting phenomena in the area around Huntsville is that tornado storm paths seem to split around the city anyway. We have a north-south mountain range to the west (Rainbow) and another one to the east (Monte Sano). The one to the west definitely suppresses tornadoes that pass across it. We have had a couple of F2s in recent years cross it west to east and be downgraded to F0 on the lee side. I happen to live in the lee of Rainbow. Both passed through my neighborhood.

Bob Ehresman

You could execute this plan in phases. 1) Build walls in segments somewhere in such a way that they can be transported and assembled on-site quickly.

2) Make it so they can be easily modified to be part of a tower. Yes, make a high-rise commercial or residential area that makes use of that wall.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret

Instead of build giant walls maybe walls of tall trees closer together would accomplish the same thing and help clean the air at the same time.

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