Manual Storm Chasing

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Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are nothing to screw around with and can turn deadly so quickly it is over before you even know it is happening. Oh, well, these guys look like they have a clue, good luck to them. Reminds me of living with Grizzlies. This series will likely encourage some number of amateur storm chasers and thoughtless thrill seekers, to put their lives and the lives of others, at risk.

A few years ago, the highly respected veteran storm chaser Tim Samaras was killed in the Oklahoma City metro area, along with his son Paul and partner, Carl Young. They were chasing a very violent tornado during the evening rush hour. The storm was not only producing blinding, torrential rains, but was changing directions, traveling in a large arc pattern, as well as straight- line movement.

USA: Storm Chasing Experience

Samaras was a seasoned meteorologist, who had a reputation for caution. Was sorry to read of them being killed. As any multi tour combat vet will tell you, no matter how good you are sometimes the luck just runs out. Had 3 close calls with parachutes, decided it was time to step away. Tim was working a storm, as he had many others, and had he made it through that he would have kept doing the work, just a bit more cautiously.

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Thrill seekers have close calls and then try to repeat the circumstance, same reason I kept jumping after leaving service, I just knew when to let it go. Still do some high work, roofing and building structures, just not as freewheelingly as I used to. I have been as close to a grounded tornado as I ever want to be, and it was WAY to damned close.

Have willingly done lots of dangerous thing in my life, knowingly crossing the path of an oncoming tornado is one I will never do again. Watched the trailer, and wondered how the effect would be different using Bach, Mozart of Haydn soundtrack. And then it simply evaporates. Tornadoes are among Earth's most violent natural acts.

About a thousand of them touch down in the United States each year, more than in any other country in the world. Some are wispy and last only seconds, others rampage across the landscape for more than an hour, but few are as destructive as the one that obliterated Manchester. By definition tornadoes are rotating columns of air that extend from swelling cumulonimbus clouds to the ground. No one fully understands tornado dynamics, but certain ingredients seem essential to the witches' brew from which twisters emerge: warm, humid air near the ground, colder air aloft, and shearing winds that change direction and speed with height.

The most destructive and deadly tornadoes form under the bellies of supercells, large long-lived thunderstorms whose winds are already in rotation.


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It was a supercell that gave birth to the Manchester tornado. Forty percent of all U. In such open country you can see entire supercells, some 30 miles 48 kilometers wide, bulling over the land, spitting rain and hail, their cauliflower tops bursting into the stratosphere. But only one in a thousand thunderstorms becomes a supercell, and only one in five or six supercells spawns a tornado. Because it's so difficult to measure tornado winds and power, scientists measure tornadoes by the damage they cause. On the Fujita scale, developed by Ted Fujita of the University of Chicago, an F1 storm does moderate damage with hundred-mile-an-hour kilometer-an-hour winds.

An F5 is horrific. The Manchester tornado was an F4. Today's warning time for tornadoes—the time a family faced with catastrophe has to gather essentials and bolt for the basement or nearest storm shelter—averages 13 minutes.

2 storm chasers got engaged as a tornado spiraled toward them

Most warnings rely on the radar stations of the National Weather Service, but conventional weather radar can miss the birth of a tornado in the five to six minutes it takes a unit's single beam to cover its range. Navy—the Spy-1 phased array radar—for meteorological use. Spy-1 sends out multiple beams in continuous rotation and is five times faster than conventional radar. For three springs Carsten Peter and I pursue supercells and tornadoes with Tim Samaras, with Anton Seimon, a geographer from Boulder, Colorado, and with some other of America's best storm chasers.

We cover more than 50, highway miles 80, kilometers , lugging Tinman around faithfully. We hit severe weather that rattles our teeth and pits our cars with hailstones. We witness skies of transcendent beauty. And we endure the gypsy life of the storm chaser—truck-stop motels, late-night Subway sandwiches, and dogged resolve. Mostly we tilt at windmills; we see only a few tornadoes.

And, as it turns out, we won't really succeed until the last hours of our last day afield. We base ourselves in Boulder in the foothills of the Rockies, where the Great Plains stretch before us like a giant stage. From here we can reach nearly anywhere on the plains with a day's drive.

For the first season, , we hook up with Anton, Tim, and an all-star group of scientists in a six-car chase motorcade. Guiding us are several "nowcasters," meteorologists who continuously monitor weather information and send directions to us on the fly by cell phone. Our main nowcaster is Erik Rasmussen, a tornado researcher with the University of Oklahoma and one of the brightest stars in severe-storm meteorology.

Through numerical computer models, constantly flowing weather maps, and intuition, he can sit at home in his bathrobe and calculate where the best supercell will arrive each day by six o'clock p. On May 25 Erik points us to the Texas Panhandle, where conditions look right for spawning a supercell.

Our task is to find this incipient monster, if it forms, get just to the southeast of it the best position for Garsten to get revealing backlight , watch it develop, and ensure we can make a getaway if things get dicey. When we arrive in Texas, we're not alone. In tornado country, especially since the motion picture Twister , storm chasing has become a phenomenon. During peak season hundreds of people fan out over Tornado Alley, a belt between South Dakota and Texas. Their vehicles bristle with radio antennas and radar dishes, their dashboards outfitted with computers and satellite-linked televisions.

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So we all know where to go. Some tornado chasers think of it as a clever computer game come to life. Others become intimate with the atmosphere, the way a trail guide learns to know the woods. Recently, skilled chasers have formed companies that take tourists on "tornado safaris," competing to see who can get clients the best views of the storms.

But it's not like going to, say, Niagara Falls, which stays put. Tornadoes are unpredictable, and a wrong decision can be hazardous.


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I have seen tour buses with windows shattered from hail, the passengers shaken but exhilarated. Research scientists are out there forecasting and chasing too, of course—teams from meteorological departments at universities and from the NSSL in Oklahoma, where much of today's pioneering work is done. But science of this kind is challenging, for tornadoes resist analysis, and creative computer models can take researchers only so far. To get a better handle on that question, research meteorologists Howard Bluestein, from the University of Oklahoma at Norman, and Joshua Wurman, from the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, join in the hunt each spring.

Stationary radar can't see fine detail in distant storms because a radar beam loses focus over long distances, so Wurman's Doppler on Wheels DOW radar trucks intercept the storms and study their hidden structure at close range. Bluestein's new mobile Doppler radar has a beam so focused it can detect wind features as fine as 20 to 30 feet 6 to 9 meters across. But field programs like these can be counted on one hand, so an extraordinary symbiosis has grown between severe-storm meteorologists and serious-minded amateur storm chasers.

We want to have readings from as many points as we can, and we need all these people to fill in the blanks. Amateur chasers may even play a role in an ambitious project planned for the spring of , when dozens of scientists will attempt to surround storms and gather data from every angle. We reach Texas in time, but Erik's designated storm dissipates into a ragged line of squalls that runs off into the Gulf of Mexico.

We caravan in the Texas Panhandle for days, Merle Haggard on the radio, tooling down the straightest roads in the world, chasing storms that only lease and don't deliver. Sometimes dinner is a bag of corn chips, some beef jerky, and a Coke. By the middle of June we give it up, leaving as a good year for those who live in Tornado Alley, but a total bust for us.

The following spring, , we carry our own technology instead of relying on nowcasters. Tim has customized his white Dodge Caravan into an intimidating storm-busters vehicle. A domed television antenna sits on its roof. The van is like a submersible diving into the atmospheric sea. On the early morning of May 23, we're in a cheap motel room in Salina, Kansas, clutching foam coffee cups, pulling weather reports off the Internet.

And now we have to make our move. It looks promising. A heavy wind has been unloading on the prairie, twisting the cottonwood leaves onto their pale backsides, leaving grain fields squirming. We head out with the skies overcast, like dirty fleece hanging off an old sheep. Thunderstorms are raging to the south.

We haul across the Oklahoma border and reach again into the Texas Panhandle. By we're in cattle country, where the towns are rawboned, as if the buildings had been scoured into packing crates by the prairie wind. We pull into Lipscomb, Texas, and a car full of local women rolls up. But we're late, and out of position. If we try to drive around the storm, we won't have enough daylight left to see it. So we decide to "punch the core" of the thunderstorm, forcing our way into the "bear's cage," an area between the main updraft and the hail.

It's an apt name: Chasing tornadoes is like hunting grizzlies—you want to get close, but not on the same side of the river. Sometimes you get the bear; sometimes the bear gets you. And so we head straight into the storm and find ourselves splattering mud at 60 miles an hour 97 kilometers an hour on a two-lane road, threatening to hydroplane, visibility near zero.

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Anton is less than comforting. It's like small meteorites banging down. When the storm spits us out, we stop to look back at the supercell steaming across the prairie. Its top is shaped like a giant anvil, and lightning flashes from it like artillery.

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Stacks of cumulonimbus clouds pompadour from its top, and dark wisps of clouds curl like imps from the "wall cloud" that has dropped from its rear flank; that's where tornadoes are known to originate. We sprint into position down a country road and—how does this happen? Down the road are the headlights of local spotters, many of them sheriff's deputies. Spotters will react on the side of caution, and account for many false tornado sightings. But spotters' vigilance saves lives and property. The supercell moves in with an immense, dark, roiling tapestry of clouds that leaves us gaping.

Hail roar—hailstones clattering against each other as they fall from high in the storm—resonates like a Harley-Davidson. The storm does not deliver a tornado, but after it passes, lightning scorches the sky for half an hour. Brad Carter, Tim's chase partner for this trip, shakes his head. If I had seen one right away, on the first trip, maybe I wouldn't have gotten so hooked. Disappointments arrive daily now. The morning strategy sessions, the long drives, the wild chases across the High Plains, the spectacular busts. It's been two years now without a tornado worth documenting.

The tornado season is another matter entirely. It starts with an explosive string of May storms that roar through Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri, leaving entire towns for dead. But we're still either a step behind or a step ahead. On the way to Colorado, my chase partner, Scott Elder, and I pull into Pierce City, Missouri, where just two weeks before an F3 had flattened homes and left the tidy brick shops and restaurants on the town's main street in rubble.

Sixty survived there. Over pancakes one morning, Jon Davies, a veteran meteorologist from Kansas, outlines a paradox,"it's so hard to reconcile the destruction of towns and people suffering," he says,"with something you enjoy doing. You won't see me whooping and hollering under a tornado. These things turn people's lives upside down. Tornadoes have also ripped the southern plains in the season, and by the time Carsten, Scott, and I join Tim and Anton for the chase, they have already dropped one probe into a Texas twister.

1. Extreme Tornado Tours

Joshua Wurman's DOW trucks were out on the same storm, so there is complementary data to feed into the computer models. Before his project, in more than ten years of trying, scientists had managed to place such an instrument exactly once: A team from New Mexico Tech made the first successful drop in By June 4 we're in a caravan of four cars barreling back down to Texas, where we chase a supercell tagged with a tornado warning into Clayton, New Mexico. On a farm road between fallow cornfields, we find ourselves perpendicular to the storm's inflow wind. Hail hacks at our rooftops.

Red-brown soil flows across the road like liquid waves. And then the world seems to simply disappear. I can see nothing but Tim's red brake lights in front of us. The convoy grinds to a halt as a sandstorm rages, its winds approaching 70 miles an hour kilometers an hour , Tim estimates. Somewhere out there a tornado may be brewing. Tim's van begins to rock. Anton's face turns ashen.