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UB experts break down Wallenda’s tightrope risks

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

The media attention has been constant for Nik Wallenda’s tightrope attempt across Niagara Falls. The Buffalo News seems to be running at least one story daily on the activities leading up to the June 15 event, ranging from Wallenda’s harness preferences to recent suicide attempts possibly spurred by attention to the falls, while other outlets are centering on more specific details of the walk. 

Wallenda’s walk across the falls will be aired on ABC at 10:10 p.m. with a five second delay. Four thousand free vouchers will be available for in-person viewing on the American side, but they must be snagged online beginning at 9 a.m. Friday. The vouchers will vanish in no time, so show up early here. There’s a limit of five vouchers per email address entered. More ticket information here at this Buffalo News article by Charlie Specht

Tuesday, five educators from the University at Buffalo elaborated on different elements of Wallenda’s daredevil attempt, through geological, literary, psychological, business and research lenses.

Dr. David Schmid, associate professor of English; Dr. Marcus Bursik, professor of geology; Dr. Cristian-Ioan Tiu, associate professor in the UB School of Management; Dr. Megan E. Pailler, director of the Psychological Services Center; and Christopher Hollister, associate librarian and ornithologist, all chime in from their fields of expertise on Wallenda’s mission.   

Dr. Schmid’s theme—the attraction of unpredictability and potential violence

Excerpt: ““Despite the ubiquity and popularity of so-called ‘reality TV,’ the vast majority of it is so safe, scripted and managed that any element of risk or unpredictability has been entirely removed. This falls walk, on the other hand is real ‘reality’ television that presents a genuinely chancy, dangerous spectacle on live TV, a performance that could actually lead to the actor’s death. That fact makes us nervous. It also compels us to watch.”

Dr. Bursik’s theme—the dangerous water plume

Excerpt: “The size and height of the plume will depend on meteorological conditions that day. It’s all super-sensitive to small temperature differences. If the water is colder than the air, as it is in the summer months, there is no or little plume, and the air will be blowing down-gorge instead. At certain times of the year, the water is warmer than the air, which results in a plume that can rise up to 3,500 feet. The warmer the water is than the air, the bigger the plume will be.”

Dr. Tiu’s theme—evaluating the levels of “risk” that Wallenda is taking

Excerpt: “Finally, there is uncertainty or unquantifiable risks. For example (and I hope not to jinx the guy), the walker cannot prepare for such things as a kid flashing a laser pointer, a helicopter flying too close or someone falling in the water, but they might increase his risk. In fact, however, these are poor examples. What I mean by uncertainty is something for which it is completely impossible to plan.”

Dr. Pailler’s theme—physiological arousal (one of the greatest phrases ever!)

Excerpt: “There is some evidence that people who rate higher on sensation seeking scales prefer arousing media. In general, men tend to rate higher in sensation seeking and may be more likely to enjoy watching a thrilling or dangerous event like the Wallenda walk. The walk also involves voyeurism, and we know how people enjoy watching other people’s lives and activities (in fact, this accounts for some of the popularity of reality TV).”

Hollister’s theme—dive-bombing peregrine falcons

Excerpt: “Peregrines are aggressively protective of their territory, particularly when they are caring for their young, and in this region, this is the time of year when they are doing just that. There are countless stories of peregrine falcons diving-bombing people.”

(Header photo Flickr / Rinaldo W.)

TAGGED: news, niagara falls, nik wallenda, peregrine falcons, tightrope experts, tightrope walk, university at buffalo

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