Each year, the central part of America known as Tornado Alley is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Powerful twisters tear across the landscape, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. In 2013, more than 800 tornadoes were reported in the U.S., and at least 50 people were killed.
What if we could prevent tornadoes from forming altogether? Temple University physicist Rongjia Tao thinks we can. His plan comes in the form of three 1000-foot tall “great walls” built at strategic points through Tornado Alley. In a paper published in the International Journal of Modern Physics B, Tao explains that tornadoes spawn when northbound warm air meets southbound cold air to form supercells. These storms turn into tornadoes roughly 30 percent of the time. The walls, which would run east to west and be about as thick as a football field is wide, would “weaken or block such air mass clashes and therefore diminish the major tornado threat in the Tornado Alley forever,” Tao says.
Weather experts were quick to debunk the idea, but it’s not our first harebrained attempt at preventing tornadoes.
1. Giant walls around cities, 1896
A man named David Wechsler suggested that, since steel-framed buildings seem to survive tornado-strength winds, giant steel walls could be built to the west of big cities to serve as “windbreakers” that would offer “protection against the weather as old-time towns were walled against human foes."
2. Metal towers packed with explosives, 1897
For a long time, we were fascinated by the idea that we could blow tornadoes up. A French inventor called Turpin suggested the construction of a series of 120-foot tall towers topped with 200 pounds of explosives and a windmill device to measure wind strength. When the wind picked up to tornado-like speeds, the tower tops would explode and “destroy the tornado at once.”
3. Missiles, 1953
Col. Rollin H. Mayer with the American Meteorological Society suggested we build a tornado-detecting network that used radar and tracking data to warn us of an approaching storm. Reasonable enough. Then when the network spotted a tornado, “jet planes with tornado-destruction missiles would be standing by to destroy tornadoes before they destroy us.”
4. Cloud-seeding, 1958
One idea was to seed storm areas with “condensation nuclei,” or cloud seeds. These are tiny particles (usually silver iodide, potassium iodide, or dry ice) that facilitate rain and other forms of precipitation by letting water cling to them and go from vapor to liquid. Morris Tepper, a tornado expert, wrote in Scientific American that using cloud-seeding could “soften the fury” of a tornado by weakening the updrafts that feed them.
Actually, it can’t do much to prevent tornadoes, but the U.S. has attempted to use cloud-seeding to reduce the size of hailstones produced in storms. People also use it to reduce fog surrounding airports and to encourage snow near ski resorts.
5. Jet engines, 1972
An article appeared in MIT's Technology Review in 1972 suggesting we create "hot spots" to weaken tornadoes by affixing jet engines to the ground that would blow a bunch of hot air upwards. The theory was that the updraft could create clouds and maybe rain to suck energy from the storm. Minor downside: The jet engines could also accidentally create their own tornadoes.
6. Microwave-blasting satellites, 2000
A physicist in California named Bernard Eastlund has proposed launching massive solar-powered satellites into space that would spot thunderstorms and then blast them with microwaves. This would heat the storms and prevent funnel clouds from forming. “I want to snip off the energy that is feeding the formation of the tornado,” Eastlund says.