Storm chasers gain respect on leading edge of tornado research

A tornado touches down near El Reno, Okla., on May 31, 2013.
A tornado touches down near El Reno, Okla., on May 31, 2013. File photo

As they tried to make sense of the massive and deadly El Reno, Okla., tornado on the last day of May in 2013, weather researchers found themselves turning to an unlikely source: storm chasers.

Often dismissed by the meteorological community in the past as little more than thrill seekers, chasers – and even casual observers who happened to be in the right place at the right time – provided key video and other information that helped produce the most detailed documentation of a tornado in history, researchers on the El Reno survey team told hundreds of people gathered for the national storm chasing convention, or ChaserCon, on Saturday.

“We don’t really use chasers to our advantage,” said John Allen, a climatologist who at the time of the research project worked at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University in New York. “You guys were all there.”

‘Very, very personal’

There were an estimated 250 chase teams in the Oklahoma City area that day and untold more individual chasers on hand for what turned out to be the widest confirmed tornado on record – 2.7 miles.

“Science doesn’t use them,” Allen said of the storm chasers. “We don’t look to you guys and go, ‘Well, actually, you guys can provide something useful.’ ”

Three veteran chasers were among the people killed by the tornado. One was Tim Samaras, who started what became ChaserCon in his Denver basement 18 years ago.

“We were caught in the storm, like so many of you,” said Anton Seimon, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “It’s a very, very personal thing for us.”

Samaras, his son Paul and his chase partner Carl Young were caught by a satellite tornado rotating around the core tornado as they tried to put down data probes in front of the monstrous storm.

Using video, photos and other data gathered from 93 storm chasers and residents of the area, along with a wide range of other data collected from radar and other instruments, the survey team was able to document the storm’s “fingerprint,” including every bolt of lightning.

“You can actually genuinely contribute to our knowledge of tornadoes,” Allen told the crowd of more than 350 chasers.

Wildly unpredictable

The El Reno tornado was remarkable in many ways, changing direction and speed dramatically. The storm was so complex, Allen said, it had a multiple-vortex tornado inside another multiple-vortex tornado, with the main wedge featuring satellite tornadoes tracking far outside where they would be expected.

A tornado within a tornado within a tornado.

John Allen, climatologist, talking about the El Reno, Okla., twister

El Reno, Allen said, “was like a tornado within a tornado within a tornado.”

Not surprisingly, he said, the tornado confused even veteran chasers. The satellite tornado that killed the Samarases and Young had wind speeds measuring EF5 on the Fujita Scale – winds of more than 200 mph – and a directional speed of 175 mph.

There was simply no way they could outrun the tornado that killed them, Allen would later say, because it was moving at such a phenomenal speed.

Because most tornadoes travel along a southwest-to-northeast track, conventional wisdom among chasers is to plot escape routes to the south or east. Many chasers in the El Reno storm drove south in an attempt to escape the tornado, Allen said, but because it was traveling east-southeast early in its life, that decision actually took them into the tornado.

When the tornado accelerated, expanded and took a hard turn to the north, it caught many other chasers by surprise.

From now on, “Please don’t cross a tornado’s path” in trying to escape, said Skip Talbot, a storm chaser who was part of the El Reno survey team.

He also urged chasers to use their escape routes as soon as they lose track of what a storm is doing.

“That’s what got so many of us in trouble in this event,” Talbot said.

Crowd-sourcing not new

In reaching out to chasers and the public for video and other information, the survey team was copying what tornado study pioneer Tetsuyo “Ted” Fujita did while researching the life cycle of the tornado that struck Fargo, N.D., in 1957.

“We want this to become a relatively routine thing,” Seimon said. “Every year there are one or two storms that are worth the extra attention.”

Researchers will also reach out to the public as part of its crowd-sourcing. Still photos provided by Oklahomans from the day of the El Reno tornado showed that large hail – with a diamater of 6 inches or more – was much more frequent than radar imagery had suggested.

“Chasers want to contribute,” Allen said after the presentation, “and the science (community) has been a little bit close-minded in that respect: ‘Well, OK, those people are yahoos, and we don’t want to be associated with them.’ ”

Ironically, Allen said, chasers may soon be at the forefront of scientific research, because it’s a rare thunderstorm or tornado that doesn’t have a swarm of chasers nearby. Their videos and other data can contribute to the understanding of severe storms, Allen said, and help researchers achieve their ultimate goal: increasing warning times and better defining the geographic areas in danger from those storms.

“We don’t want to encourage people to be unsafe,” Allen said, “but if you’re out there and have your data, why not contribute something?”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger