BUFFALO, N.Y. -- On June 15, high-wire artist Nik Wallenda will
attempt to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope -- the first such
attempt in more than 100 years.
He will use an 1,800-foot long, custom-made, two-inch wire that
will stretch from Goat Island on the American side of the falls to
a site just below the falls on the Canadian side. The wire will be
strung about 200 feet above the base of the Niagara Gorge.
The walk poses considerable danger to Wallenda from such things
as the falls' mist plume, changeable winds, possible attack by
peregrine falcons as he traverses their flight path, and clamps on
the safety harness he is being forced to wear by ABC, which is
televising the event.
This event has generated much excitement and controversy, and
University at Buffalo experts are available to discuss the nature
of such spectacles, their role in popular culture, the Niagara mist
plume, crowd psychology and the kinds of risks involved in this
David Schmid, PhD
Associate Professor and Associate Chair
University at Buffalo Department of English
The public loves a spectacle that involves possible violence
"From the popularity of reality TV to our tendency to slow down
to rubberneck at car accidents on the highway, our society loves a
spectacle, particularly if it includes the possibility of violence.
This is especially true for those who want to be famous or are
attracted to celebrity. More than ever before, fame means to be
visible, to do something that grabs public attention and keeps
"Because the tightrope walk by Nik Wallenda touches upon all
these themes, public interest in it extends far beyond morbid
curiosity. The Wallenda event also has that X-factor that sets it
apart from so much on the contemporary media landscape:
"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.
"Suzanne Collins, author of the best-selling 'Hunger Games'
books, presents the premise in which, in a future United States,
children kill each other as part of an immensely popular televised
game. At first glance, that seems completely unbelievable. But
consider the success of the books and the movie adaptation and the
excitement the Wallenda walk is generating. Collins has struck a
Marcus Bursik, PhD
University at Buffalo Department of Geology
Niagara Falls Water Plume and Wind Could Affect Wallenda's
"Wallenda will be walking over a portion of the Niagara Gorge
directly below Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. The location is
not the safest route he could have chosen. In fact, it is probably
the worst place to cross. There is a plume of mist that rises from
the pool of water in the Niagara Gorge just below the falls that
produces a moist updraft. It will be a little like walking a
tightrope in a mini-thunderstorm. If he is used to moist updrafts,
of course, it may not be a problem for him.
"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.
"The wind will be a factor as well. The wind can be, and often
is stronger than the up or downdrafts associated with the falls.
From our measurements, we found that the wind is often blowing
across the gorge, so he could get a head or tail wind, or even
shear. The plume adds an extra vertical component to a wind that in
most places is much weaker than the horizontal wind.
"Wallenda will have factored possible conditions into his
consideration of the walk, of course. He must be used to dealing
with different kinds of wind conditions. The plume will be
relatively small at this time of year, possibly nonexistent,
because air temperatures are warmer than the water. It presents a
possible risk, however. Since his wire will be only 220 feet above
the gorge basin, even a small plume could increase risk.
Cristian-Ioan Tiu, PhD
University at Buffalo School of Management
Wallenda Falls Walk Entails Different Kinds of Risks
"The upcoming walk by Nik Wallenda over Niagara Falls entails a
variety of risks.
"The first kind is enterprise risk. This is the risk that the
whole 'adventure' won't happen for reasons such as regulations,
last minute concern from authorities, etc. I assume that there has
been work dedicated to ensure that this event will happen, so the
risk here is low.
"Second is specific risk. In this case, danger could be
increased by weather, mechanical complications or health issues. I
am no professional wire walker, but I assume that the training and
accurate weather reports predict most of these risks and pose
"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.
"I have described these risks from the perspective of the
walker. From the perspective of the viewer, the risk will appear
greater, partly because what is quantified above as specific risk,
that is, a risk that can be managed, will be perceived by the
viewer, who is not a rope walker, as uncertainty.
"The greater the difference in perception, the more interesting
the show will be."
Megan E. Pailler, PhD
Director of the Psychological Services
University at Buffalo Department of
Public Appeal of Wallenda's Walk Has Psychological
"Sensation seeking, vicarious thrills, danger and uncertainty --
because of our psychological makeup, Nik Wallenda's planned walk
across Niagara Falls fascinates us on a variety of levels.
"In many ways, its appeal is similar to that of arousal-inducing
action or horror media. As in those cases, the terms applied to the
walk are 'dramatic,' 'thrilling' and 'exciting.' But why is this
particular event so electrifying? I think for several reasons:
-- Many people enjoy the physiological arousal they experience
when watching dangerous, exciting and novel events, and the
Wallenda walk offers danger, excitement and novelty.
-- 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).
-- The danger and uncertainty of the outcome intensifies the
experience, and, if the walk is successful, there is also the
vicarious sense of relief and accomplishment -- similar to the
experience of watching your favorite team win a game.
-- The Wallenda walk is outside the realm of day-to-day
experience. It provides an appealing escape from the mundane. Many
of us have detailed memories of watching significant and novel
events like the moon landing. And as I said, the potential for
danger may heighten this feeling.
-- Finally, there is often a satisfying sense of shared
experience that accompanies watching such things with others --
things that may collectively be recalled and recounted."
Christopher Hollister, MLS
University at Buffalo University Libraries
Possible Peregrine Falcon Attacks on Wallenda a Safety Risk
Hollister is an avid conservationist and ornithologist and a
contributor to the Breeding Bird Atlas published by the New York
State Department of Environmental Conservation.
"The Canadian Peregrine Foundation has raised alarms over the
possibility of attacks on Nik Wallenda by a pair of peregrine
falcons nesting in a nearby decommissioned Ontario Power Generation
plant. They say the birds could feel threatened by Wallenda, since
his Niagara Falls walk will take him through their flight path.
"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
"I do think that possible falcon attacks should be a serious
consideration in terms of his safety. Peregrines reach speeds of
200 miles per hour during a hunting swoop, making them the fastest
animal on the planet. Being hit by a bird moving at that speed
would have quite an impact on a man trying to balance on a high