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Tornado chaser Tim Samaras's last ride

Tornado chaser Tim Samaras's last ride
BASTIEN LECOUFFE-DEHARME

Before it came for him, Dan Robinson watched the thing grow. It began as a bolus that descended out of the storm, projecting needle-like vortices that lanced the wheat fields near a lone pump jack. Columnar towers a hundred yards wide gathered and darkened against the pale light to the south, unspooling into wispy coronas that moved across the prairie beneath the rotating, two-and-a-half-mile-wide wall cloud above.

It was a little after 6 p.m. on May 31. Dozens of storm chasers were navigating back roads beneath a swollen, low-hung mesocyclone that had brought an early dusk to the remote farm country southwest of El Reno, Oklahoma. Robinson, a website designer and chaser from St. Louis, jumped into his compact Toyota and sped east. He peered out at the tornado framed in his passenger-side window, now wrapping itself in rain so dense that he struggled to make out its leading edge. He swore it was moving farther away. If he got out ahead of it, he reasoned, he might get a better look.

For seven miles, he raced the tornado over dirt roads. It spanned close to a mile, but it would have looked like a shapeless wall of torrential rain to the untrained eye. The last time he'd had a good bead on the funnel, it was tracking east-southeast. Now, as he drove south, he could tell something had changed. It was nearly imperceptible, the way mountains loom larger as you drive toward them. But in thirty seconds, the darkness on the horizon was filling his entire field of vision.

Team TWISTEX after Kirksville, Missouri, intercept on May 13, 2009: Ed Grubb (from left), Carl Young, Tony Laubach, Tim Samaras and Paul Samaras.
Ed Grubb
Team TWISTEX after Kirksville, Missouri, intercept on May 13, 2009: Ed Grubb (from left), Carl Young, Tony Laubach, Tim Samaras and Paul Samaras.
Matt Grzych in Greeley, near a Colorado State University weather-radar dome.
Anthony Camera
Matt Grzych in Greeley, near a Colorado State University weather-radar dome.

"I'm getting too close," he remembers saying to himself. "I need to start looking for the east [road] option."

An arcing transformer on a utility pole ahead pulsed white light as Robinson bailed east onto Reuter Road. His view to the south was wide open, a country of buffalo grass, red cedar and scrubby blackjack oak. He glanced out of the passenger window, but he couldn't find the tornado's outline. That was worrisome. Robinson didn't like getting in front of tornadoes he couldn't see.

He rolled up to U.S. Highway 81 and began to pull his car onto the southbound lane, then stopped. The mass was already passing over the road to his south. Robinson drove on across the highway's four lanes and picked up the gravel road on the other side. After no more than half a mile, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye.

"What is that?" he wondered as a gray, vaporous curtain swept toward the road ahead of him. "What is that?"

At the heading and speed he thought the tornado had been traveling, there was no reason it should be this close. Yet his windshield was lashed by bands of needling rain. A darker form took shape in the south. Robinson blew through the stop sign at Alfadale Road. The heavy rains slackened, and in that moment he knew he should not be there: "It's just off the side of the road."

The curtain overtook him again and the rain came faster, with a sound against his windshield like stones against glass. His Toyota lurched to the side in 100-mph gusts and began fishtailing in the gravel, causing the car's traction control to cut power to the wheels. He backed off on the accelerator to override it. He did this again and again, never maintaining a speed faster than 42 mph. "The car won't go!" he said.

He punched through swirling eddies of rain. His windshield wipers couldn't clear the water from his windshield. He drove on, blind.

If he had looked in his rearview mirror, he would have seen the headlights of a white Chevy Cobalt, which was somewhere south on Reuter Road. Inside was Tim Samaras, one of the country's most respected tornado scientists, who had built his career by placing sophisticated probes in the paths of oncoming tornadoes. These devices, which he called "turtles," took measurements from inside the storms. No chaser could claim as many intercepts.

Samaras had an uncanny knack for finding twisters and for escaping them with his life. But the monster hiding in the rain that day was something he had never encountered before. What neither Robinson nor Samaras could have known was that in seconds it had grown from a mile to 2.6 miles wide, making it the largest tornado ever documented. And it was tearing toward them across the wide-open wheat fields at highway speed. The difference between escape and incomprehensible violence was measured in hundreds of yards on Reuter Road. And while Robinson never looked back, his rear-facing dash camera did, capturing the last living images of a legend.

**********

To ride with Tim Samaras and his expert forecaster, Carl Young, was to ride with the "big boys," as Matt Grzych puts it. For two seasons, Grzych ventured with them beneath mesocylones, the rotating masses of air that stretch for miles overhead and often spawn tornadoes. In a white crew-cab GMC truck outfitted with a winch, chain saws and a mobile weather station, they'd run them down.

He remembers the way that truck could slice through the current of rain, hail and wind feeding the super-cell thunderstorm. They'd drop down ahead of the tornado, deploy devices made of hardened steel and filled with instrumentation to measure wind velocity, barometric pressure and temperature. Then they'd run as fast as the GMC could carry them.

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4 comments
hal0
hal0

Can't we use airborne (or non-airborne for that matter) drones to investigate tornadoes now?  They're faster, inexpensive-ish, flexible, can be designed to be disposable, and can reach any altitude along the tornado and fly right into it.  Although they may enjoy it, it seems such a waste to put people with so much knowledge in harm's way.

Chriss Hoffman
Chriss Hoffman

R.I.P. Tim and Paul, that was such a sad day. Good article on an amazing and selfless researcher who died doing what he loved, trying to learn how to predict storms and save lives a real tragedy and loss for all of us that call Tornado Alley home.

StormGroper
StormGroper

@hal0 This has actually been suggested and tested but there's a few problems with it. Because they are aircraft, the FAA has been deterring progress with it because they are worried about it causing issues with other aircraft and they will only approve of the flight of drones by people that have undergone proper pilot training and even then, they have to communicate to the FAA as a pilot while flying it. In an area with little or no cell signal it can be extremely difficult to communicate with anyone other than with CB radios. 

The other issue with drones is transportation. In order to get close enough to the tornado to get any kind of useful information, it would have to be a larger drone that is capable of dealing with 100+ mph inflow winds (not the tornado) as well as the outer circulation of the tornado itself. It would be very difficult to transport an aircraft like that that is deployable at a moments notice. Bringing a trailer is a bad idea as a lot of the time during a chase, you're on a back-country dirt road that is only big enough for a passenger vehicle to turn around (which happens frequently). 

It's a good idea but the implementation of it could take a lot of effort and the FAA isn't the easiest agency to work with.

-source; Researcher at NCAR, Meteorologist, Storm Chaser, I was also at the El Reno tornado and almost met a similar fate to TWISTEX. On a side note, a lot of my friends and colleagues knew Tim and Paul and were devastated by what happened. They were as careful as possible but this storm was not like others.

Let me know if you want to know more. I enjoy sharing information about these topics.

 
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