It was bound to happen, based on the numbers and the odds. Since the advent of storm chasing, we knew it was inevitable. It could have taken five days or 50 years but it wasn’t a question of if but when.
A veteran, experienced storm chaser puts himself in harm’s way in the name of science and protecting the public, then loses the battle against Mother Nature. Sadly this happened Friday evening to Tim Samaras, 55, and his two-man crew — son Paul, 24, and Carl Young, 45 — near the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno.
As supercell thunderstorms exploded in the volatile atmosphere across west-central Oklahoma, the storm chasers sat poised and ready to follow these destructive monsters, hoping for a close encounter with nature’s fury. The mission was to get close, but not too close.
Despite the advances in technology and Doppler radar there’s no sure-fire way to predict a tornado’s path once it begins to scour the earth’s surface. They shift, they wobble, they bounce around. Storm chasing is like putting your heels on the edge of a 100-foot cliff — get as close to the edge as you can and hope nothing shifts to send you over. The El Reno tornado shifted its path many times, with deadly consequences.
Tim Samaras was a pioneer in storm chasing; better yet, storm researching — 25 plus years under his belt. He was well respected and cautious.
You name it, he had done it. He founded and ran a scientific field research program dubbed TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes Experiment) which made huge strides in tornado and severe thunderstorm research. He developed probes placed in the path of a tornado that would literally be sucked into the vortex in order to collect data. Remember the experiment named Dorothy from the movie Twister? He inspired that.
Tim held a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for measuring the greatest pressure drop inside a tornado. He starred in the Discovery Channel series Storm Chasers, which afforded him a bit of celebrity that he had truly earned.
So how could this happen to Tim Samaras and his crew? Out of the hundreds and hundreds of tornadoes that Tim had encountered in his quarter-century career, how could this be the fatal one.
It was because the El Reno tornado was different. This supercell ended up being a storm chaser’s worst nightmare, a perfect scenario of what you don’t want to see on a chase.
I spent many hours that evening watching live streaming video from the local stations in Oklahoma City, along with tracking this storm on radar. From my chair three things stood out about this tornado that made it an uber tough storm to chase.
1) It was a large HP (high precipitation) supercell. In lay terms it was rain-wrapped. Unlike the Moore, Okla., tornado 11 days earlier that was easily visible as it grew into a monster EF-5, the heavy rain blocked the view on this one, or at least made it very difficult to see. What is not visible on the other side of the rain shield can potentially kill you, and unfortunately it appears that may have happened.
2) This tornado was a wobbler. With its large circulation, the entire storm oscillated up and down, jogging north, then drifting south along the I-40 corridor west of Oklahoma City. Any storm chasing crew could have easily found themselves out of a safe position in a matter of seconds.
3) This supercell was so large and the circulation so broad that several satellite tornadoes with multiple vortices developed around the parent vortex. The result would have been a mirror of the No. 2 factor; a crew member is out of a position of safety before it had time to react.
We can reason all we want as to why things played out the way they did, but in reality it doesn’t matter. Our hearts cry for the families of these three brave men and all those who lost loved ones in the tornadoes of the past few weeks.
Storm chasing is not a sport. Yet with the age of social media and YouTube, untrained individuals are packing up their cameras and venturing into dangerous territory in search of that money shot. They aren’t there to help people and all they are really doing is putting more lives at risk.
The meteorological community and society as a whole lost one of the great ones on May 31. Tim Samaras did more for tornado research in 25 years than 10 men could do in a lifetime combined. Heaven knows how many lives he saved with his research and ironically he gave his in the pursuit of that mission.
Let the El Reno tornado be a lesson for meteorologists and common folk alike. Leave the chasing to the experts, and for those experts let the last few words of Tim’s final message on Twitter at 5:50 p.m. that fateful day enter your mind on every chase to come: “Stay storm savvy.”
God speed, Tim, Paul and Carl.