This Storm Chaser Risked It All for Tornado Research

Tim Samaras always wanted to be a storm chaser and he was one of the best. But then he encountered the deadly El Reno tornado of 2013.

We all know the famous scene from the Wizard Of Oz, when Dorothy is transported by a twister to a magical new land. For modern-day storm chasers like Tim Samaras, who received several grants from the National Geographic Society and is the hero of Brantley Hargrove’s The Man Who Caught the Storm, tornadoes exert a similar sense of wonder and awe. Chasing violent, meteorological events across the Great Plains, these derring-doers frequently risk their lives to get close to a tornado and help scientists understand what makes them tick.

When National Geographic caught up with the author at his home in Dallas, Texas, Hargrove explained why Tim Samaras was much more than just a storm chaser; why the Great Plains are the world’s premier breeding ground for tornadoes; and why the storm that eventually killed Samaras was so deadly.

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At the center of your book is a man named Tim Samaras. Give us a brief biographical profile and explain how he became a storm chaser.

Tim was not the guy you would have pegged to get the kind of data scientists have been trying and failing to get for decades. He was this middle-class guy born and raised in Lakewood, Colorado, grew up a bit of a tinkerer. He was always taking apart his mom’s appliances and conducting little experiments in his bedroom. During a thunderstorm he’d run a line out to a power pole outside to see if he could conduct a little bit of the charge to a light bulb. Or he’d tune the radio during storms and listen for the static crashes of far-off lightning. He was fascinated by storms.

What got him interested in storm chasing was a NOVA documentary on twisters. He saw scientists like Howie Bluestein going out after storms in an attempt to deploy a probe into the core of a tornado. Tim was transfixed by the image of these guys tracking these storms down, then racing down dirt roads trying to head them off. He wanted to do that. He wanted to become a chaser.

You write, “Until recently, the core of a tornado remained as remote as the surface of the sun.” Take us inside a twister and explain why Tim Samaras’s “turtle” was such an important innovation.

Scientists have been trying, and failing, for decades to get data from the core of a violent tornado. As you can imagine, it’s an extremely dangerous place. In high-end tornadoes, winds can be in excess of 200 mph, with hurtling debris capable of skewering telephone poles. Tornadoes are also a transitory occurrence. You can see hurricanes coming days ahead. With tornadoes, we often don’t know whether one’s going to come down 10 minutes before, so it’s extremely hard to get data.

In the 90s, you had the Vortex Project, a multi-million-dollar, federally funded moon shot-like effort to understand tornadoes. They got a probe closer than anybody had by that point, but it wasn’t in the heart of the tornado. So, here comes Tim, against this backdrop of scientists with PhDs from the ivory towers of meteorology and academia, and he had invented this “turtle.”

It is essentially an instrument package, which he made from a shell of milled steel. Conical in shape, about 6 inches tall and 20 inches across, it is roughly the size of a sedan tire and can withstand the flow field of a violent tornado. There’s an activating switch on the back; you put it in the dirt, get the hell out of the way, and come back once the tornado has gone past and collect your instrument.

You write, “In the United States, the damage caused by tornadoes has outstripped that of fires, earthquakes, and floods.” Explain why the Great Plains are the best breeding ground in the world for tornadoes.

According to the Congressional Research Service, tornadoes are the largest causes of economic damage in terms of destruction, except for hurricanes. The 2011 outbreak of tornadoes in Dixie Alley caused at least $27 billion in damage and something like 360 deaths. The Great Plains is an accident of geography. Almost nowhere else in the world do you have this unstable moist air mass out of the Gulf of Mexico meeting the drier air mass coming over the Rockies, along with cold polar air coming out of the North. We just happen to have a kind of geography where we have all these different air masses colliding to form more than 1,000 tornadoes per year. Our closest runner-up in the sheer number of tornadoes is Canada, and they’re not even close.

To place one of his probes, Samaras had to get as close as 500 yards to a tornado. Talk about the tension between caution and danger, and how Samaras “made history” in South Dakota.

Tim had always been a pretty cautious chaser, but he realized that to get an instrument into the core of a tornado you had to play a little closer to what I call “no man’s land.” First, you have to get in front of a tornado, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. They move at various speeds up to 40 mph, and they swerve, so you have to get really close to be sure your instrument is going to enter the core. It was a gamble he had to make time and time again.

He finally got it right in South Dakota, the titan of the plains. The Manchester, South Dakota, F4 was the largest and most violent tornado he had been confronted with. He hauls down this dirt road with the tornado closing in. He can see debris going up into the funnel, taking houses along the way. Pat Porter, the guy with him, is clearly nervous, saying, “Tim, please hurry!” You can hear the fear in his voice. Tim jumps out, activates the probe, plants it in the dirt, then sprints back into the vehicle and peels out as fast as he can with this tornado dropping pieces of housing insulation into the road ahead. He didn’t know it then, but he had achieved what atmospheric scientists had been trying and failing to do for decades. His probe went into the core of an F4 tornado. It was a huge day.

Caught in Tornado Alley Scientist Karen Kosiba goes into the eye of the storm to investigate the 2011 tornado season.

Storm chasers are a special breed. Take us inside this arcane fraternity and discuss the paradox between their high-fiving glee and the death and destruction tornadoes cause.

Tornado chasers come from all walks of life. I’ve met a number of them and it’s hard to find any singular demographic except, as you say, they are mostly men. The only thing they have in common is that they go out chasing one day and get bit by the bug. It is very much an addictive pursuit. But contrary to the depiction you see in the movie Twister, a lot of it is quite boring. For a week at a time you can drive thousands of miles just to see a thunderstorm that doesn’t produce.

It wasn’t until my third outing as a chaser that we saw a peerless tornado event in Pilger, Nebraska. There is definitely a moral conundrum that goes on, because later I found out we were very near a village that was almost completely destroyed. The damage looked like scenes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tim finally met the ultimate storm he had been chasing near El Reno, Oklahoma, in 2013. Talk us through the events of that day, and explain why Samaras couldn’t outrun this storm.

The El Reno tornado of 2013 was purpose-built to kill chasers, and Tim was not the only chaser to run into serious trouble that day. Tim and his team were driving a sedan, which was unusual. Usually, Tim would be in a large GMC diesel 4 x 4. They had three probes in the back of this sedan, which was carrying Tim, his son Paul, and his chase partner, Carl Young.

All the indicators that day were for something big, and this tornado quickly grew to immense proportions. They were south of this little town, El Reno, for the most part on dirt roads. The first link in the chain that would eventually bind them was that they were going to make this east turn, but realized it was going to lead them into dead end, and they would be out of the chase. This forced them to drive closer to the tornado than they would have preferred.

Debris was bouncing off of the sedan and Tim and Carl were well aware that this was a very bad place to be. So they made a north turn on the next dirt road that they could. About the time they got to U.S. Highway 81, the tornado was outpacing them, moving faster and faster, and getting bigger and bigger, until it was around two miles in width.

It was the worst kind of tornado to intercept. It was rain-wrapped, with a curtain of rain hanging to the north, so they couldn’t see it for the most part. It was eventually moving at highway speeds, which is incredibly dangerous. And what they don’t understand, and can’t see, is that the tornado is beginning to hook toward them. Eventually, the rain curtains overtake them and they encounter increasing headwind speeds of 100-plus mph. But it isn’t until close to the end that Tim understands how precarious their position is. The sedan is not capable of handling the extremely wet roads and high winds while carrying three grown men and three steel probes. So, eventually, their progress slows to about 20 mph. At this point, they are well within the core of the tornado.

The core is probably survivable. It’s when they encounter the sub-vortex within the tornado that they’re killed. The sub-vortex fluctuates in width and has winds up to 200 mph in speed. It was a killing, lethal wind, which probably caught them by surprise. The sub-vortex slammed into their vehicle, picked it up, and its counterclockwise winds carried it northeast and deposited it in a field more than 600 feet from their starting location. Tim, his son, Paul, and his chasing partner, Carl, were all killed, probably instantly.

Climate change is affecting the frequency and strength of tornadoes. Unpack the science for us.

The science regarding climate change and tornadoes is still a little unclear. The emerging consensus is that climate change will have two impacts on the tornadoes’ main sources of fuel. With the warming of the oceans we’re going to have a higher evaporation rate, more moisture released into the air, which is a primary food source for tornadoes. There’s also research that seems to indicate that there may actually be a decrease in wind shear, which is another primary energy source for tornadoes. Tornadoes can’t survive with unidirectional winds. They need converging winds. So climate change may lead to a lower number of tornadoes. But when tornadoes do occur, these outbursts may be much, much worse than anything we’ve seen.

Let’s end with Tim’s legacy. Was he just a super-talented storm chaser? Or did he have a lasting impact on the scientific understanding of tornadoes?

It’s inarguable that he had a lasting impact. He showed that we can get data from the core of a violent tornado and that was a huge step. Others are now following in his footsteps, like Joshua Wurman at the Center for Severe Weather Research, who is now actively going out there and deploying instruments of his own design into the cores of tornadoes. He hasn’t had a direct strike yet, like Tim had, but he is working on it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitteror at simonworrallauthor.com.