Tornadoes are the natural result of an unstable atmosphere. But, there’s no denying that they cause paths of damage and destruction. One scientist believes we could prevent them from forming by building giant walls. That’s right – it sounds like science fiction, but Dr. Rongjia Tao believes building giant walls out in the Plains could significantly decrease the number of tornadoes. In his research, Dr. Tao examined the correlation between the number of twisters per county and the number of west-to-east oriented hills. Specifically, Dr. Tao uses Gallatin County, IL and Shawnee Hill as an example. Only 7 tornadoes have been reported in this area since 1950, while surrounding counties reported dozens. He believes the hills act as a barrier to disrupt the flow a severe thunderstorm needs to produce a tornado. His theory involves building 3, 1,000ft-tall, west-to-east facing walls in Tornado Alley: one near the south Texas/Louisiana border, one near the Kansas/Oklahoma border, and one between North and South Dakota.
Dr. Tao’s theory has gained quite a bit of skepticism in the scientific community, particularly from meteorologists. According to experts from the Storm Prediction Center, even if these walls could possibly be built, the atmosphere would still release that pent up instability somewhere. Adding to the skepticism is research conducted by Brice Coffer, a Meteorology PhD student at NC State. Coffer tested Dr. Tao’s theory by simulating the proposed walls in computer forecast models. The results found that the air just flowed up and over the wall. Taking it one step further, Brice decided to test an extreme case and see what kind of an impact a 1.5 mile (2500 meter) tall wall would have. Even with in this case, with a wall that would be humanly impossible to build, they found that it would not completely stop tornadoes from forming.In fact, it actually just pushed the storms eastward because the moisture had to flow around the wall. Additionally, Brice noted significant changes in temperature and precipitation around the wall, with some types of desertification developing in those areas.
Much like what has been proposed, there remains a wall of divide in the science community.