I was both shocked and saddened to hear that severe weather researcher and storm chaser Tim Samaras (pictured above, photo courtesy National Geographic) was one of those killed by tornadoes in the Oklahoma City / El Reno areas on Friday afternoon, May 31, 2013.
Tim was not the type of storm chaser that you'd "expect" to see in that type of headline. If I had to use three words to describe Tim's approach to tornado chasing they would be experienced, professional and cautious. He was certainly not what I would call a "hot shot", nor was he out there to make himself famous via dramatic, too close for comfort photos and/or videos. He was a severe weather researcher - a true scientist and had done work sponsored by both the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
With that said, let's be brutally honest about something: One of Tim's primary missions was to place meteorological instrument packages in the paths of oncoming tornadoes. He had been doing this for years, and with considerable success. In fact, on June 24, 2003, one of his probes measured the steepest pressure drop in the world (100mb in 40 seconds) as an EF-4 intensity tornado passed over the probe near Manchester South Dakota:
Why do I say "let's be brutally honest" when leading into this part of the discussion? Because when your mission is to place probes or other devices in the path of an oncoming tornado, sooner or later, no matter how cautious and/or experienced you are, the odds of something "bad" happening are bound to catch up with you.
Under such a scenario, "bad" could range from as little as your vehicle being stranded on a flooded roadway or damaged by flying debris, to the ultimate definition of the term - your seemingly untimely death. Unfortunately, the latter form of the word was exactly what happened to Tim and his crew on Friday (his son, Paul Samaras, age 24, and fellow researcher/chaser Carl Young, age 45, were also killed).
I cannot confirm that the photo below is indeed one of Tim's research vehicles after coming in contact with a tornado near El Reno on Friday, but "major" media outlets in the Oklahoma City area are reporting it as such:
Regardless of who's vehicle this was, the destruction is noteworthy from an educational standpoint. That's the engine block laying out beside the vehicle, which had been carried some distance before being dropped and/or thrown by the tornado. A vehicle is no place to be during a tornado, despite some shocking "advice" to the contrary that came out from the American Red Cross of all places last year. I wholeheartedly disagree with anyone who says it's safer to ride out a tornado in your vehicle than in a ditch, ravine or other low lying area. I think the image above (as well as countless others from Moore earlier in May as well as other events) speaks for itself on that point.
According to the medical examiner's office, Tim's body was found still seat belted in his vehicle, while the other two members of his crew were removed from their vehicle and their bodies were found some distance away (reportedly 1/2 mile or more).
I do not report the above information to be morbid or to show lack of respect for those lost, I am doing it to further prove a point: tornado chasing is a serious, very dangerous business. I know Tim counseled "up and coming" chasers to that end before, and I am sure he would continue to do that now if he had the opportunity. It's not a game or a contest to see who can be closest and first with dramatic videos - it's serious business.
So, how did the odds catch up to him, and why were the results so deadly? There were likely multiple factors at play, but I think one overall theme is emerging from the events of Friday: this was a complex supercell thunderstorm, which did not behave "normally" in many ways.
The El Reno / south OKC supercell was very large and had multiple circulations taking place at (or very near) the same time. Meteorologists (and presumably storm chasers) know that a major circulation will "cycle" from time to time. That is where the original circulation weakens and/or diminishes and is replaced by a new circulation to the right or left of the original.
The photo below captures what was likely one of several "cycles" that took place with the El Reno storm on Friday. It was taken by the Basehunters storm chase team:
Note the remnant/decreasing circulation on the right, and the newly forming circulation and condensation funnel on the left.
In the above photo, the replacement tornado was relatively close to the original. This is not always the case, as a considerable distance can exist between the two (actually, that is quite common).
Another hazard in the "cycle" situation is that the parent thunderstorm can also send out a significant amount of non-tornadic downburst and/or straight line winds when the transition is taking place. I found myself caught by such a burst of wind in Nebraska on a chase way back in 1990, and I was nearly blown off of the road in my chase vehicle. I believe this is what happened to the Weather Channel's chase team on Friday when their vehicle was flipped over, rolled and heavily damaged (thankfully, all were able to walk away):
After my experience in 1990, I increased the distance that I had already set for myself as far as how close I would get to the parent circulation of a supercell. That's easy to do if you're just plain "chasing", but if your mission is to place probes in front of the tornado's likely path, increasing the "safe zone" can be a difficult task to achieve.
Another contributing factor was that this supercell was what we call "high precipitation" meaning it contained copious amounts of torrential rain and hail, both of which can obscure the general circulation and tornado threat considerably.
Flash Flood Warnings were in effect simultaneously with tornado warnings on Friday, which creates another potential hazard for those out on the roadways. The radar snapshot below shows a close-up of the OKC Metro and the storm in question on Friday. As you can see, heavy rain and hail (yellows and reds) were widespread and extended almost in all directions from the parent circulation, which as of the time of this image was circled in white:
The bottom line is that if you find yourself too close to the beast (meaning the general circulation or mesocyclone) in such a large supercell and a cycle begins to take place quickly, as was the case multiple times on Friday, you can be caught off guard and the results can be disastrous.
I've (thus far) silently observed calls this weekend for storm chasing to be "banned" or for a permit or license to be required. That's pure nonsense. You can't legislate or regulate a human being's right to observe his or her natural surroundings (or at least you shouldn't be able to if we truly reside in a free land).
Lots of things in life are dangerous. Do you need a permit to climb a mountain? How about the rattle snake hunts that are held in various parts of the southwest each year? As far as I know, you don't need a permit to participate, and quite frankly, I'd rather responsibly chase a tornado any day rather than poke around under rocks for venomous snakes who are ultimately unhappy to see me.
In my opinion, many in the "mainstream" are far to quick to call for government intervention now days. This all comes down to personal responsibility. Anyone is free to go out and observe the wonders of nature, which includes violent thunderstorms and tornadoes, and that's the way it ought to be. But as I always caution folks (and I know that Tim did, too), the inexperienced should never attempt to do this alone - always make sure that an experienced chaser is on board.
Sadly, knowledge and experience did not save Tim and his crew on Friday. While this was a tragic event, it is extremely rare for the thunderstorm or tornado itself to kill a storm chaser. Most serious injuries and/or deaths of chasers in the past have been the result of a car accident, completely unrelated to the situation at hand.
The "media frenzy" surrounding tornado and severe weather events in recent years also brings this issue to the forefront, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the longer term.
To summarize, my thoughts are: Ban or regulate storm chasing? No. Encourage responsibility, common sense and the utmost caution, including (and in some cases, especially) among members of the media? Yes.
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