Tornadoes are as much of a given in the Midwest as cornfields and county fairs. In an average year, twisters kill 80 people and injure more than 1,500, so you can imagine the excitement when a physics professor proposed an end to the annual misery: three great walls, each about 1,000 feet (300 meters) tall, that could potentially block the deadly storms of Tornado Alley.
But the idea didn't impress meteorological scientists. Never mind the huge cost, ecological consequences and engineering difficulties involved in the scheme, weather experts say it just wouldn't work.
"The first time somebody mentioned it to me, I thought they were actually joking," said Paul Markowski, a professor of meteorology at Penn State. "There are crazy ideas that could at least work, and then there are crazy ideas that wouldn't even work theoretically." [5 Wild Weather Control Ideas]
The basic goal of the proposal, put forth in the International Journal of Modern Physics B by Rongjia Tao, a physicist at Temple University, is to thwart the "violent air mass clashes" that spawn punishing tornadoes.
Tao envisions three east-west walls, one at the northern edge of Tornado Alley, maybe in North Dakota, another in the middle, perhaps in Oklahoma, and the last stretching across southern Texas and Louisiana. In theory, these barriers would stop the warm, moist air that flows north from colliding at high speeds with cold air flowing southward. (Tornado Alley refers to the stretch of land between the Rocky Mountains and Appalachian Mountains that's particularly prone to tornadoes.)
Tao said he got the idea while working as a professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where he studied the differences in tornado risk between nearby Washington and Gallatin counties. He theorized that Gallatin County was better protected from tornadoes thanks to a small range at its southern border known as the Shawnee Hills, which only reach about 820 feet (250 m) in altitude. He saw a parallel in the Jiang-Huai Hills of China, which only stretch about 984 feet (300 m) off the ground. According to Tao, the Jiang-Huai Hills and two other east-west mountain ranges make the plains of China largely tornado-proof. He thinks he could mimic that quiet landscape in the United States with artificial walls.