National Geographic : 2013 Nov
The Last Chase 37 does a tornado occur? Over the past 40 years, with the development of Doppler and other advanced forms of radar, researchers have be- come increasingly adept at tracking the rotating storms known as supercells. They can measure the atmosphere’s “convective available potential energy,” or CAPE, to determine a supercell’s in- tensity. And after the fact they can rank a tor- nado’s sheer destructiveness using the Fujita or the later Enhanced Fujita scales—both named after the famed meteorologist Ted Fujita, who began his career measuring the damage done by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Na- gasaki. But, says Howard Bluestein, one of the reigning experts on the subject, “we simply don’t understand exactly what distinguishes supercells that produce tornadoes from those that do not.” That basic riddle tantalized both the scien- tist and the boy in Tim Samaras. From the early days, when storm chasers relied on folding maps and sought out phone booths to receive weather updates, to pursue a tornado has been to brush against a glorious if destructive mystique. “For me, it was the total beauty of the storm itself,” says David Hoadley, now a retired program analyst with the EPA who began chasing in 1956 and is therefore understood to be the founding father of the storm-chasing community. The very ar- chitecture of the storm, Hoadley goes on to say, is awe-inspiring: the coherency of a gathering system as moist, warm air bursts through a cap of colder air and creates an updraft and then a massive anvil; the pillowy mammatus clouds that congregate beneath the anvil; the cloud ribbons known as inflow bands that rush into the storm; the descent of a “wall cloud,” which tends to pre- figure a tornado; and the twirling and talonlike “hook echo,” usually composed of hail, shredded debris, or small raindrops, that often announces the tornado’s violent arrival. All of this seemingly out of nowhere, in a matter of minutes—“kind of like a magical machine,” says Hoadley. The men like Hoadley and Samaras who de- vote much of their lives to the pursuit of storms— and yes, the tribe is overwhelmingly male—have a scientific basis for doing so. Still, to chase a storm is also to chase innocence, romance, and immor- tality all at once. The sensation that comes from against the rain. As they do, a third funnel coils out of the sky. “ Three vortices!” Young exclaims. “Yep,” says Samaras. When he turns back to the camera, he looks awed by what he is witness- ing. “Wow. This is gonna be a gigantic wedge.” Young agrees. “It could be a very long-lived tornado. It could be on the ground for miles.” They return to the car a couple of minutes later and, with the windshield wipers flapping, silently press on eastward, the tornado lumbering along to their south. Lightning flickers across the dismal sky. Power lines swing madly about. The wedge grows and grows, blotting out all traces of the sun, darkening the three men in the car. “It’s violent,” one of them says. Stop the tape. Pause and consider: These were not men given to violence. They were not gratu- itous thrill seekers or adrenaline junkies or even kamikaze researchers fulfilling martyrdom in the name of science. In particular, the legendary storm chaser, inventor, and National Geographic Explorer Tim Samaras was known for evangeliz- ing about safety and for bringing an abundance of caution to his vocation. Though the decade- long mission he had assigned himself—placing measurement devices known as probes in a tor- nado’s path, which necessarily entailed putting himself in the same path—was inherently high risk, he went to considerable lengths to mitigate the danger. He practiced deploying probes inces- santly, always noting the time it took. He stud- ied the day’s weather patterns as if the lives of his crew depended on it. He gamed out escape routes. And even after all that, Samaras would not hesitate to abort a chase if the roads were poor or the tornado was too rain wrapped for its path to be discernible. “I can’t tell you how often we didn’t deploy because he said, ‘Nope, this is too dangerous,’” recalls Tony Laubach, a member of the Twistex crew. “It was almost annoying at times. We’d say, ‘C’mon, we can do this!’ But he was very cautious.” How, then, to reconcile that widely acknowl- edged fact with the tragic events that would overtake the three men on May 31? Did the per- fectionist fatally err? Or was the storm at El Reno simply a monster that defied all calculations? If some of the answers are finally unknow- able, that would be fitting, since mystery was, and is, the true object of the storm chase. How Robert Draper’s last story for the magazine was an essay on photography. Photographer Carsten Peter frequently went on assignment with Tim Samaras.