Friday, March 14, 2014

Protecting Tornado Alley With Tao's Walls?

Tornado season is only a few months away for folks living in America's Tornado Alley. Each year, these storms kill some of us. Professor Rongjia Tao's plan could stop tornadoes before they form.

I think 'Tao's walls' should be considered.

(from AP, via, used w/o permission)
  1. Measuring Avalanches Before They Happen
  2. No More Tornadoes?
First, why I think developing new technologies and learning about our world is okay.

Learning About Fire

"Long ago, man learned to make fire. Generations later, man learned how to put out fires."
Old joke

(From Omar hoftun, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Çatalhöyük, a proto-city which flourished from 7500 BC to 5700 BC, as folks were uncovering it in the 20th century.)

Early adapters started using fire somewhere between 1,700,000 and 125,000 years back. By then, most folks seem to have figured out ways to use fire without getting burned.

Recently, about 9,000 or 10,000 years ago, we started building cities: which caught fire occasionally.

Instead of deciding to stop building cities, or outlawing fire, we cleaned up the mess each time, eventually developing volunteer fire departments and halon extinguishers: which we may decide are more trouble than they're worth.

All this talk about fire, and cities, and people living before October 23, 4004 BC, raises a question: how can I believe in God, and think that the universe is huge and old?

Ancient, Not Outdated

(From MM, via Italian Wikipedia, used w/o permission)

I'm a Catholic, so I believe in God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1)

Since I'm Catholic, I'm a Christian: with access to accumulated wisdom from an ancient oral tradition and writings from the last two dozen centuries. We're ancient, but we're not outdated.

For the first dozen centuries or so, Catholics lived in a world where most folks were shepherds, servants, or slaves. Today we're in a world where many are cashiers, food service workers, or sales associates. We'll be here when most people have occupations that don't exist yet.

Our faith isn't tied to one nation, culture, or era. We are literally καθολικός, universal, and that's another topic. (August 4, 2013)

Truth Cannot Contradict Truth

(From "The Three-Story Universe," © N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals (1987), via Nick Gier, University of Idaho, used w/o permission.)

I could follow my faith and believe that ancient Mesopotamian cosmology was an accurate model of this universe. But because I am a Catholic, I don't have to ignore what we've learned over the last several millennia.

I've been over this before, but since my native culture has some strange notions — I think it bears repeating.

God is truth. Truth cannot contradict truth.

The universe is beautiful and good. God is making the universe.

Faith comes from God: so honest study of the universe cannot contradict faith. (Genesis 1:1-2:9; Catechism, 31-32, 105-108, 159, 279, 282-289, 301, 341)

Admiring the Universe, Doing Our Job —

"Do not love the world or the things of the world. 7 If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

"For all that is in the world, sensual lust, 8 enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world.

"Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever."
(1 John 2:17-17)
Someone recited those verses from 1 John to me, after I'd expressed the opinion that God created both natural law and physical law.

I don't see a problem with saying that God made the universe and designed it with ethical principles built in: but I've also quoted from "Alice in Wonderland," and that's yet another topic. (May 12, 2013)

I think part of the problem is that my native language, English, has one word for agápe, éros, philía, and storgē: "love." I'd better not mean ἀγάπη hamburgers and merely στοργή God.

Loving the universe the way I should love God is wrong. (Catechism, 2113-2114)

I do, however, admire the universe a great deal. God does excellent work, and I'm looking forward to the re-release. Revelation 21:1 and all that.

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA, used w/o permission.)

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that "the world" in 1 John 2:17 is everything that's hostile toward God and alienated from him. Since God made the world, said that it's "very good," and isn't schizophrenic: I really don't think I'm supposed to ignore this astounding creation.

I realize that we live in a fallen world, and still dealing with consequences of our first parents' disobedience. And that's yet again another topic. (July 11, 2012)

Even if I decided stop enjoying the beauty of this creation, and stopped being curious about how it works: somebody better be paying attention, because one of our jobs requires a good working knowledge of this world.

— For All Generations

(From Jongleur100, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

God made us in His image, male and female, and told us to take care of this world. (Genesis 1:26-28)

Knowing that I'm an "image of God" doesn't make me feel like a hotshot. Maybe it's because I remember Matthew 25:14-30.

Or maybe it's because I remember when bragging about humanity's control over the forces was still fairly common.

The notion that we've got complete control over the world, and can do anything we like with it, is silly. So is the more recently-fashionable one that we're nothing but a destructive animal that will destroy the world. (February 10, 2013)

We don't own the universe. It belongs to God. We are, however, in control: as stewards. We have the frightening responsibility of wisely managing this world's resources, for the good of all: for today, and for all generations to come. (Catechism, 2415-2418)

It's the same job we've had since God put us here. What's changed recently is the degree of control we have over some of the natural world.

Happily, we seem to be learning that "With great power there must also come — great responsibility!" (June 30, 2013)

(ISS Expedition 34, via Wikipedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

1. Measuring Avalanches Before They Happen

"Microwave radar monitors sliding slopes: Geodesists research in the Alps"
ScienceDaily (March 10, 2014)

"The 'Steinlehnen' slope in Northern Tyrol (Austria) started to move in 2003. Rockfalls threatened people, streets and buildings. Meanwhile, peace has returned; although the slope is merely 'creeping,' Steinlehnen has become an interesting research object for scientists in recent years.

"Professor Andreas Eichhorn of the Geodetic Measurement Systems and Sensors branch in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Technical University of Darmstadt initiated the interdisciplinary project KASIP (Knowledge-based Alarm System with Identified Deformation Predictor) together with the Technical University of Vienna and the 'alpS' research institute; the goal was to combine metrological observations of the slope with computer models.

" 'A slope is tremendously complex,' says Eichhorn. It can be difficult to determine exactly how a mountain slope is composed and how a failure mechanism works in detail. Therefore, scientists will not be able to rely solely on computer-based models to predict mass movements in the future; they also need efficient and precise surveillance and monitoring systems that are as comprehensive as possible...."
Folks have two basic options for measuring a mountainside that's likely to collapse: three, if you count not trying at all.

The hands-and-feet-on approach involves walking out on the slope, taking samples or placing monitors, and trying to get away before an avalanche starts. A team could lose a lot of equipment, interns, and scientists that way.

The wait-and-watch approach is safer, and gives very precise data with today's scanning technology.

These scientist take snapshots of mountain slopes with microwaves. They decided against laser light, since reflections in visible frequencies are "noisy," and affected by weather.

Analyzing the microwave reflections, they get 3D images of the slopes: so precise that they can detect changes of a few millimeters between two 'snapshots.'

2. No More Tornadoes?

(From AFT, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"More than 800 tornadoes were recorded in the US last year"
"Great Walls of America 'could stop tornadoes' "
James Morgan, BBC News (March 7, 2014)

"Building three 'Great Walls' across Tornado Alley in the US could eliminate the disasters, a physicist says.

"The barriers - 300m (980ft) high and up to 100 miles long - would act like hill ranges, softening winds before twisters can form.

"They would cost $16bn (£9.6bn) to build but save billions of dollars of damage each year, said Prof Rongjia Tao, of Temple University, Philadelphia.

"He unveiled his idea at the American Physical Society meeting in Denver.

"However critics say the idea is unworkable, and would create more problems than it solves...."
I'm quite sure that Professor Tao's proposed walls aren't the sort of software-generated gibberish I discussed last week. He seems to have studied tornadoes, North America's landforms, and arrived at a possible method for preventing these destructive storms.

I think he's sincere: but I'm not sure that he's right. Not entirely.

Huge, Yes: "Unworkable," No

I'm not at all convinced that building several hundred miles of thousand-foot-tall walls is "unworkable."

As Dr. Tao pointed out, we routinely build structures as high as his walls: like Philadephia's Comcast building. If the walls didn't include power and communication cables, plumbing, elevators, and other fittings required in office and residential structures, Tao's walls should be very straightforward engineering projects.

The cost is another matter. Even for the United States, a $16,000,000,000 project is huge. As for negotiating with five state governments, the U.S. Congress, and assorted counties and municipalities: My guess is that we'd need very compelling arguments.

Preventing Tornadoes: Maybe —

(From NOAA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"...The proposed walls would not shelter towns - they would not be strong enough to block a tornado in motion.

"Instead, they would soften the clashing streams of hot southern and cold northern air, which form twisters in the first place, Prof Tao said.

" 'If we build three east-west great walls, one in North Dakota, one along the border between Kansas and Oklahoma, and the third in the south in Texas and Louisiana, we will diminish the threats in Tornado Alley forever,' he said...."
(James Morgan, BBC News)

I added Tao's walls, as described, to a map of the United States Interstate Highway system.

Maybe, compared to building the Interstate system, the project isn't so big after all. Whether it's a good idea: that's another question.

— Or Maybe Not

"...Another leading tornado expert, Prof Joshua Wurman of the Center for Severe Weather Research, was equally dismissive of Prof Tao's proposal.

" 'Everybody I know is of 100% agreement - this is a poorly conceived idea,' he told BBC News.

" 'From what I can gather his concept of how tornadoes form is fundamentally flawed. Meteorologists cringe when they hear about "clashing hot and cold air". It's a lot more complicated than that.'

"Though much of the blame does lie with warm air rushing north from the Gulf of Mexico, stopping it would be nigh on impossible, Prof Wurman says.

" 'Perhaps if he built his barrier on the scale of the Alps - 2,000-3,000m (9,800ft) high, it would disrupt it,' he says.

" 'But clearly that would also cause a drastic change in climate.'..."
(James Morgan, BBC News)
I'm a tad dubious about assertions that include the words "everybody I know." What "everybody knows" can reflect the beliefs of a community that's tight-knit, or isolated: depending on your point of view. On the other hand, sometimes "everybody" got it right.

Professor Wurman is probably right, though: thousand-foot-high walls might not have much effect on continent-sized air masses. If the weather walls need to be about 10,000 feet tall to make a difference: we probably couldn't build them. Not in the next few years, anyway.

On the other hand, mile-high skyscrapers have been on the drawing boards for decades, so maybe a two-mile-tall wall is within our abilities. Frank Lloyd Wright's The Illinois may have been an inspiration for the Burj Khalifa.

I think Professor Wurman is right: to a certain extent.

"Worse than the Disease:" Today

(From AP/The Oklahoman, via, used w/o permission.)
(After a tornado in Oklahoma: May 2013.)
"...'But clearly that would also cause a drastic change in climate.'

"And there lies the real crux of the problem, says Prof Wurman. Any geoengineering scheme powerful enough to eliminate tornadoes would also by definition have catastrophic side effects.

" 'The cure could be worse than the disease,' he told BBC News.

" 'So the solution to tornadoes is not trying to get rid of them.

" 'It's better predictions and warnings so people can get out of way. Better homes. Better shelters.'..."
(James Morgan, BBC News)
"Geoengineering," in this context, is changing or building something on a scale that affects Earth's climate.

Folks changing the environment is nothing new. Irrigation systems in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, and China made large-scale agriculture possible: and jump-started our civilizations.

What's changed most, in a way, is the scale of our changes.

The bad news is that being stupid, greedy, or short-sighted can cause much more trouble today than in the days of the pharaohs.

The good news is that we've got technology that eradicated smallpox, drastically reduced the scale of plagues, and can feed everyone in the world. Yes, some of us are still hungry. We've got the ability to feed everyone: but haven't eliminated corrupt officials and inefficient distribution networks: and that's — another topic.

Cloud Seeding and Being Careful

(From National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Black Hills Flood of 1972: jumbled cars.)

We're even able to influence weather: and, happily, are being a bit more careful about our experiments. That much good, at least, came from a lethal storm back in 1972: my opinion.

There is no proof that cloud seeding experiments by the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences caused a lethal deluge.

However, the scale of the disaster encouraged a certain diffidence regarding weather control. When the sun rose on June 10, 1972: 238 folks had died; 3,057 were injured; 1,335 homes, and 5,000 cars, were destroyed. Some bodies have not yet been recovered.

Folks still use cloud seeding technology: carefully, on a small scale: generally to increase the odds of useful precipitation; or to suppress hail or fog around airports.

Being careful is one thing. Deciding that any new technology is a bad idea: not so much. Even so, projects on the scale of Tao's walls should be very carefully thought through: before they're built.

The stakes are at least as high as they were back when we learned how to make fire: and that's where I started.

(From NASA/GSFC/MODIS, used w/o permission.)

Related posts:


Brigid said...

Something doesn't make sense here: "Catholics lived in a world where most folks were shepherds, servants, or slaves were Catholic."

Missing word: "That can reflect the beliefs tight-knit, or isolated, community"

Missing word and punctuation: "However, 238 folks died, 3,057 were injured, 1,335 homes 5,000 cares were destroyed in the flood that followed."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Oops. Extreme editing errors.

Found, fixed, thanks!

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Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

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