The tragic death of noted weather researcher and former Discovery Channel storm chaser Tim Samaras has shaken all of us in the meteoro-logical community. He was one of three people killed in the middle of a chase a few weeks ago in Oklahoma, but he will always be remembered as a scientist first and storm chaser second — someone who helped improve our knowledge of tornadoes and lightning in order to make our lives safer.
But the loss of Samaras and his team is a tragic reminder that storm chasing is a dangerous pursuit.
With the advent of radar applications for smartphones, precision storm warnings and GPS devices, it may seem as if anyone can simply jump in a car and easily find tornadoes. However, this is akin to thinking one can rewire a house by purchasing electrical supplies and doing an online search for instructions.
People interested in storm chasing should, at minimum, take a storm spotting class, read several books about chasing safely and find an experienced partner. They should also respect basic safety rules such as never chasing in cities, at night, or in areas with hills and trees that can obstruct lines of sight. Finally, as the events leading up to Samaras’ death revealed, chasers should maintain a safe distance and have escape routes mapped out in case a storm suddenly changes direction.
You might ask: Why not give up chasing entirely?
Even with the dangers, there are good reasons to chase and get as close as we safely can to these meteorological monsters. Unfortunately, chasing is still one of the best methods for weather researchers to collect data about tornadoes. While we understand the large-scale factors that cause supercell thunderstorms, meteorologists still are learning why some storms produce tornadoes while others do not. There is simply no good way to measure the near-storm environment without going to the storms themselves and deploying equipment.