I woke up this morning to learn that veteran tornado researcher and storm chaser Tim Samaras and two others were killed by a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma. I never knew Tim in person, but I had the pleasure of interacting with him on the wx-chase mailing list and on the Stormtrack forum. Tim was of the old breed of chasers: safety-conscious, focused, and a serious scientist. This makes his death all the more jarring; Tim Samaras is about the last person you’d expect to die in a tornado.
That’s why this is so upsetting for me. I’ve always held to the belief that chasers are safe so long as they’re not stupid. I don’t know what happened in those last minutes, but it’s safe to say Tim was not being stupid. Did he make a mistake? Did he lose situational awareness? Was this a completely unavoidable accident? I can’t answer any of these, which means I’m face-to-face with the lethality of my sometimes-hobby.
To my knowledge, Tim and his companions are the first people to die while actively chasing. The other deaths that I’m aware of were due to roadway accidents on the drive home. That nobody has been killed is a surprise in itself given some of the crazy antics of those who have taken up the hobby inspired by “Twister” or Discovery’s “Storm Chasers”.
Tim can no longer contribute to the scientific study of tornadoes. Perhaps his death will serve to remind us all that even the best are vulnerable.
Nicely said Ben!
I think the trouble with chasing anymore, as you noted, thanks to the sensationalism of movies, TV shows, and over-dramatized media coverage, is that the spectacle brings people out in droves. When folks, scientists or otherwise, flock to a concentrated area to get the best glimpse of a storm it poses a traffic problem. The roads in these areas tend to be narrow, small, and often unpaved. Sometimes these storms are HP and can flood out road passage altogether. Folks can get stuck owing to road conditions or human idiocy. That can put folks in extreme danger, even those who carefully calculate their risks.
I chased in ’97 and ’98. Even though there was just 1 year of difference, my experience in ’98 was vastly different from that in ’97. By different I mean less enjoyable. In ’98 we were one of the masses that flocked to the storms of interest. Many times I felt unsafe, not because of the weather, but rather because of an unsure escape route should we need to hightail it out of there! Too many people in too small of an area.
Bottom line, chasing has gotten too popular resulting in unpredictable roadway congestion which is the ultimate hazard, not the storm.
That’s one of the reasons I enjoy chasing central Illinois/Indiana. The opportunities for “chaser convergence” are greatly reduced. Of course, this harms the social aspect somewhat, but it’s a worthwhile trade for me.