Shock waves rippled through the overlapping communities of meteorologists and storm chasers over the weekend with the news that veteran tornado-chasing scientist Tim Samaras, his son Paul and chase partner Carl Young died after running into a powerful twister near El Reno, Okla., on Friday (May 31).
The event has raised questions about how safe it is to chase storms that spawn dangerous tornadoes. Most storm chasers are careful, and many, like Samaras, provide important information to tornado forecasters of where storms are on the ground, as well as data about how these monstrous storms form and develop, said Mike Prendergast, a storm chaser with Skywatcher Media. But a growing number of people seeking video or thrills are endangering themselves and others, he added
People have always known that storm chasing is a dangerous activity, Prendergast told LiveScience. But surprisingly, this is the first time a professional storm chaser has died in a tornado that they were trailing, according to a release from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This twister was a preliminary EF3 tornado, according to the agency. [Gallery: Storm Chasing Scientists]
The event should serve as a wake-up call to everybody in the community to be more careful, Prendergast said. While the full details of what happened to Samaras and his team are not yet known, they were "some of the more careful guys out there, and very well-respected," Prendergast said. "If it happened to them, it could happen to anybody."
As more and more people chase storms, roads occasionally become overly crowded during outbreaks of severe weather on the plains, Prendergast said. Community members call this "chaser convergence," and it can be dangerous. "That may have contributed to what happened Friday night," he added.
Marshall Shepherd, a professor and research meteorologist at the University of Georgia, said he's concerned about this growing problem, as well as an increase in the number of inexperienced storm chasers seeking to get extreme photos and videos of storms, to sell and profit from.
"I've been increasingly concerned about these new aspects of the chase culture," Shepherd, also the president of the American Meteorological Society, said. "But I'm not adverse to it when people are being safe … I'm not against a science-based approach," he said.
There also seems to be an increase in the number of people chasing tornadoes who are merely interested in the thrill, Shepherd said. These people "generally aren't the safest" and can get in the way of professional storm chasers, impeding their work, Prendergast said. "I'm surprised there haven't been chasers hurt or killed by traffic," he said.
Shepherd said he is not a storm chaser but respects the work of people like Samaras, who provide valuable information to the meteorology community, like understanding the interior environment of a tornado. Storm spotters like Prendergast also serve as eyes and ears for the National Weather Service, supplying information about storm conditions that sometimes doesn't show up on radar or satellite images. He and other meteorologists and chasers have begun to have a dialogue on blogs and Twitter about the best practices of storm chasing and the future of the endeavor.
How to chase safely
As urban areas become bigger, there is an increased likelihood of tornadoes hitting cities, Shepherd added. "The dart board grows larger," he told LiveScience. This means there is a greater chance that chasers will cause congestion in city streets, or won't be able to get out of the way if need be, he said.
Chasers generally stay south of tornadoes, as they tend to move from the southwest to the northeast, Prendergast said. In the case of Friday's Oklahoma twister, it was a rain-wrapped tornado, meaning it was cloaked in a dense curtain of rain and thus difficult to see. It also quickly intensified and turned unexpectedly, which was likely a factor in the death of the Samarases and Young, he added. [Infographic: Tornado! How, When & Where Twisters Form]
Prendergast usually keeps at least 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) between himself and large, poorly visible tornadoes like this one, he said. With smaller twisters, he has come closer, to within less than half a mile (800 meters). It's also advisable to have an escape route if the tornado takes an unexpected turn, he said.
Of course, professional storm spotters and tornado-chasing scientists have years of experience and often extensive training that allow them to get closer than would be advisable for members of the public, who are urged to follow advice and warnings posted by the National Weather Service, the agency said in a release.
Prendergast hasn't had any really close calls with tornadoes despite his three years of chasing, which he credits to keeping his distance. "I've got a family to come home to," Prendergast said.
Samaras' colleagues remember him as a brilliant and courageous researcher. For the past 30 years, he has observed tornadoes up close. He started and led a field campaign known as TWISTEX, or Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes EXperiment, which resulted in academic papers and the invention of storm-observing instrumentation, according to the Washington Post.
Samaras specialized in dropping sensors into the inside of twisters to better understand how tornadoes form. His work has "advanced our observational knowledge of tornadoes, our capacity to improve severe storm models, and perhaps provided guidance on emergency preparedness and response," Shepherd said.
Mike Bettes, a meteorologist with the Weather Channel, was also chasing the same tornado that claimed the lives of Samaras and company. Bettes nearly met the same fate when strong winds from the tornado picked up his vehicle and threw it about 600 feet (183 meters), according to the network. He walked away from the vehicle with minor injuries, including stitches in his hand. It is the first time one of the channel's personalities has been injured while covering extreme weather, the channel said.
"The chaser community knew it was a matter of time before a fellow chaser(s) died chasing a tornado but Tim Samaras was not on my list of people I thought this [would] happen too," wrote photographer and storm-chaser Mike Theiss on Facebook. "As much technology as we have in our cars and as much experience as we may have, Mother Nature is still king. As beautiful as Mother Nature can be, there is also an extremely ugly side."