How a Legendary Storm Chaser Changed the Face of Tornado Science
May 31, 2013 seemed like just another rainy spring day in El Reno, Oklahoma. The afternoon was hot, the air heavy with moisture. On the darkening horizon, thick clouds billowed in a promise of rain.
But around 4 p.m. local time, the winds shifted slightly and the afternoon shower turned deadly. Two hours later, the tornado that touched down defied weather experts’ predictions, rapidly changing speed and direction and swelling to record-breaking sizes. At its peak, researchers estimate that the twister spanned 2.6 miles across.
Over the course of its 40-minute rampage, the twister caused millions of dollars of damage, 115 injuries and 20 deaths. Each of those deaths was significant, but three were particularly unusual: the first storm chasers ever known to be killed in a tornado. The violent winds enveloped Tim Samaras, 55, his son Paul Samaras, 24, and his colleague Carl Young, 45, toppling their car like a toy in a breeze.
Their deaths may not seem surprising; storm chasing, as you might expect, has its risks. But Samaras was a seasoned chaser who pursued tornadoes for over two decades. As journalist Brantley Hargrove writes in his new book The Man Who Caught the Storm, Samaras worked to change the face of tornado science, helping researchers better understand how changes in pressure, humidity, winds and air temperature conspire to produce a phenomenon so powerful it can snap trees, flip cars or even derail a multi-ton train.
Throughout Samaras’ career, he ventured ever closer to the deadly storms to deploy squat cone-shaped probes he engineered to measure the pressure, humidity and temperature in the heart of the tornado. But to do this, Samaras had to bend the chasers’ one rule: “never get too close or too cocky,” as Hargrove puts it.
Hargrove was a reporter for the Dallas Observer when he heard of Samaras’ death. The 1996 drama Twister had loomed large in his teen years—and Samaras’ story was like a real-life retelling of that suspenseful tale. “I had to know more about this guy,” he tells Smithsonian.com. “Why did he get so close? What was he trying to accomplish out there?”
As Hargrove would soon learn, Samaras’ dangerous work had good reason: he was trying to save lives. By getting ground-based data, he hoped scientists could better understand these tricky beasts, and use the information to hone their forecasts and design structures to withstand the roaring winds. As Samaras once stressed: A ground-based measurement from within the twister “is especially crucial, because it provides data about the lowest ten meters of a tornado, where houses, vehicles, and people are.”
The twister that tooks Samaras’ and his colleagues’ lives is a testament to tornadoes’ complexity, and how much scientists have yet to learn. Currently, seven out of ten tornado forecasts from National Weather Service are false alarms, and the lead time on an oncoming twister is an average of just 13 minutes.
In the early half of the 20th century, tornadoes were deemed so unpredictable the word was forbidden from weather forecasts to prevent unnecessary outbreaks of hysteria. Progress on the forecasting front moved slowly until the 1970s, when the first Doppler radar scans illuminated the elements of these twisting storms. Scientists could track the storm’s development and soon learned to spot the signs of a developing twister.
But there was still much to learn. As Hargrove writes, the Doppler can say nothing about temperature, humidity or pressure inside the tornado.
Since the 1970s, researchers had been attempting to measure these basic pillars of atmospheric science from the tornado’s heart. These efforts include the TOtable Tornado Observatory (TOTO) project, the inspiration for the movie Twister. But many of these devices weighed hundreds of pounds, making them impractical to move in the few heart-pounding moments a chaser has to deploy. Others simply couldn’t withstand the tornado’s winds, which have been measured up to around 300 miles per hour.
Many factors can affect the developing tornado—from changes in air temperature to the tug of nearby storms. And unlike hurricanes, which can be spotted days off shore, tornadoes develop over the course of hours or minutes, which makes taking on-the-ground measurements even more challenging. As Hargrove says, “tornadoes are creatures of variability.”
That’s where Samaras came in.