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How Did So Many Storm Chasers Get Hit By The El Reno Tornado? Why This Tornado???

I want to start by saying the entire meteorological community is mourning the loss of Tim Samaras. For those of you that didn't know much about Tim, he was a researcher and Tim Samaras pioneered the "turtle" probes that scientists placed in front of tornadoes.


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These turtles allow us to get "in-situ" measurements or measurements from inside of a tornado without actually being in one. We were able to measure the wind speeds, barometric pressure, humidity, temperature, etc. in the middle of a tornado using his turtle probes.


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One of the real mysteries in meteorology has been the processes that occur in the tornado because we have never been able to directly measure them. Tim Samaras' data was pivotal in helping us understand the near ground environment in tornadoes. The pressure drop and temperature have been critical for helping us test theory against real measurements and the forces that allow wind equilibrium in the tornado. Tim Samaras was not an "extreme" chaser, but a scientist. His loss is enormous to the community and I send my prayers to his family. No one ever imagined Tim Samaras would be the first fatality in the storm chasing community. Tim truly was an innovator and gave us data in the actual tornado environment that has never been given before.



Why Did So Many Storm Chasers Get Hit By The El Reno, OK Tornado...


Before I dive into this discussion, I want to mention I have been a storm chaser since 1996. I did research for a few years prior to getting into TV. I was a part of the research team known as the Doppler On Wheels or DOWs. I worked on the ROTATE '98 and '99 research teams, I worked on a co-project with MIT studying microburst and downdraft on ASR-9 radars at the airports, I was part the DOW research teams studying hurricanes including Bonnie & Georges, etc. I worked de-aliasing data from radar data collected in the Florida Keys studying land breeze / sea breeze interaction and de-aliased the velocity data the infamous Spencer, SD F-4 tornado in 1998. I mention this only because I do want you to know I do have experience as as storm chaser.


The first rule of storm chasing when I was chasing was staying safe. Staying safe meant always having escape routes in the north-south direction and east-west direction. This rule was a steadfast rule that I simply would not break. If I didn't not have escape routes, then I would never push the position. First let me show you where the chasers were located and mention many of the injuries occurred on State Road 81 in Oklahoma. All the red dots are storm chasers and you can see a cluster of them in a dangerous spot north and northeast of the tornado.


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Now let's look at the roads themselves to see if these chasers indeed had an escape route. What you notice is there are a ton of east-west and north-south roads in the area where the El Reno, OK tornado occurred. The map from google earth shows they did not make a bad choice from the escape route stand point. With that said, we do not know if there was traffic on any of these side roads and that certainly complicates the discussion.


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Staying safe always mean you let the storm dictate how close you could get.  Let's look at what the tornado itself dictated in terms of what was a safe distance. This storm had extreme rotation on it and was what we call a multivortex tornado. When you see a multivortex tornado like this one (notice the spinning suction vortices), you simply have to back off since it can intensify REALLY fast as this one did.




StormView3D also shows the extreme rotation in this storm as you see the tornado tube extend to over 50,000 feet! This is really remarkable to see!


To be honest, it does appear that people were closer to this tornado that they should have been. I am not sure if you blame this on traffic or the "get closest" mentality. It would be foolish to ignore what the "extreme stormchasers" have done to the community. Good storm video sells for a ton of money and I am not sure if we are looking at a situation where people choose to get too close to try to get the "money video"? Only they know their motivation.


Staying safe means you allow direction changes in the tornado, so you do not get in a bad position. I think one of the big things that contributed to so many storm chasers being hit by the El Reno, OK tornado was the left move the tornado made. When you have strong/violent tornadoes, they make this left move as they get ready to weaken a bit and staying safe means you give strong/violent tornadoes room. This tornado was on a right moving storm cell and that is the case on many of the tornadoes that form from extreme instability. The problem was the tornado started to occlude and like all tornadoes that occlude, it made a sharp left move. I want to show you a series of images that shows the direction the tornado was moving. I am showing you only the rotation indicating the tornado location, so you can identify the tornado motion. Notice in the early images it moves SE then sharply shifts to the NE and ultimately to the N at the end. The shift occurred right near State Highway 81 where many chasers were located.














Finally, the tornado was rain wrapped at times and that could have contributed to how storm chasers approached this storm. It was my rule to never chase HP (high precipitation) supercells because the tornadoes almost always cannot be seen. I think this was likely not the problem though because the storm appeared to go HP only after crossing State Highway 81 where most were injured. In addition, video shows the tornado was not rain wrapped per what chasers have posted.


My Thoughts...


The El Reno, OK storm posed distinct risks to storm chasers. It was a strong to violent multi-vortex tornado. These tornadoes are notorious for growing in size extremely fast and getting close to this kind of tornado is amazingly dangerous. The tornado also made a sharp change in direction from southeast to nearly north in about 10 minutes. The change in direction occurred very close to State Highway 81 in Oklahoma and that was where a lot of storm chasers were located. This put the chasers in a bad spot. Getting so close to this particular tornado was clearly not a good idea. The video below has become one of the defining videos of the El Reno, OK tornado. I want you to listen closely at 3:47 and notice the passenger is yelling get south. He does not mention trying to get east and ahead of the tornado, but is yelling get south which took him directly into the tornado.





Without knowing specifically what road they are on, I cannot speak to what escape routes they had but it is clear they were indeed driving south into the tornado. It is also clear that there were other chasers around them that were going south and heading right into the tornado. Why they did this is only known to them.

It does not appear that the chasers chose bad roads since there were escape routes in all 4 directions, so I think we can remove that from the equation.


There is one part that we must consider in addition to all the meteorological explanations above and that is traffic. It is difficult to say what the traffic was like in each of these areas and if it impacted the choices the storm chasers made. Was the northern escape route to I-40 east blocked and was that the reason the chasers didn't go in that direction? Did they go south to avoid the hail core on this storm hoping to get ahead of the tornado?


I don't think there is a person alive that thinks Tim Samaras was a wreckless storm chaser. Tim Samaras dedicated his life to getting "in-situ" or measurements inside of a tornado. His death sent shockwaves through the chaser community and the loss his family is suffering is unimagineable. Please make sure you understand his motivation for chasing is questioned by no one.



The Changes In The Storm Chasing Community...


Storm chasing has changed so much over the last 15 years. It went from a group of highly trained meteorologists 15 years ago to an enormous number of untrained meteorologists chasing storms. Storm chasing has even become something that adrenaline junkies do for vacations ... as is evident by the huge number of tornado tours. The massive numbers of chasers on the roads today make it very difficult for the experienced and highly trained chasers to navigate safely. Many chasers use the term "circus" to describe what it is like and chaser "convergence" what happens are severe storms because there are SO many people chasing. On top of this, we had the advent of the "extreme storm chasers" a few years ago. This changed the storm chasing culture forever because it quickly became about who could get the closest to a tornado ... sometimes at all cost. This video of the TIVs from the storm chaser show that was on the Discovery Channel shows the danger some of these storm chasers themselves pose to the public. Notice the team is passing on the wrong side of the road when they cannot see over the upcoming hills!




It seems the storm chasing community has really fractured over the last 15 years into extreme chasers that will do anything to get closest to the tornado and the legit scientists / spotters. Make no mistake, spotters and scientists are incredibly valuable. They put their lives on the line to help the public during tornadoes and the scientists learn about how tornadoes function to expand our understanding. At the same time, there are a reckless number of chasers out there on the roads taking unnecessary risks to get the best video of tornadoes. I am not sure I am in any position to say who those people are, but the culture has changed. We need to find our way back and remember that we must treat storms with the utmost respect. When the goal is to upstage the next chaser by getting video that is closer to the tornado, then we have lost track of what storm chasing is all about.






It is storm season and if you want to be one of my storm spotters, you can join me on my facebook or twitter page. Just follow the link below and click "like" or "follow".





If you ever have any question, please remember I can be reached on facebook or twitter easily! Just follow the link below to my facebook or twitter page and click "LIKE/FOLLOW"!


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Sad to hear the loss of 3 storm chasers (including Tim Samaras) and several others injured. Every meteorologist I follow (Several of them like you) and I'm sure hundreds across the US are giving their opinions and thoughts about this tragic event that I knew was bound to happen someday. That day was very unique in many ways and as you said, this WILL change the storm chasing community. Have been hearing thoughts about creating new legislations and laws about this topic. If storm chasing continues like this, another loss or losses of life are bound to happen. Let's hope not.

I would hope that the deaths of these people and the injuries to the Weather Channel's personnel will remind other (less qualified) chasers just how truly dangerous this is.

Unfortunately, the lure of cash and "getting scooped" by others surely played a part in these people taking risks that perhaps they wouldn't have in the past.

Regardless, my thoughts go out to the families and friends of those who perished.

Looking at the satalite image of chasers, I stoped at a hundred and fifty.Thats one of the reasons they got hurt, and as far as samaras he was to close. I have been chasing since 1980 and I always keep a good distance from multi vortices, I use to live of off Banner rd and 59th, im 4 generations Okie, I'm a chaser by hobby, I have pics of may 3rd 1999 F5, 1998 F3, video of the birth of F4 that hit mohual, Ok in 98 etc.... I my self went after the El reno twisters and did a u turn because of all the out of town chasers and travelers. You have to know ur area ur chasing otherwise u can make the wrong turn like samaras, and pick your exit paths. The road they were on goes east or west only bad idea. And DO NOT LET UR ADRENA get in the way.

Ok so I have been reading and watching everything I seen on this but I am a bit confused. Tim Samaras was normally in his white or black pod truck and his scouters would drive in the white car that was hit by the storm. Why was he in the scout car this time instead?

On another note their are way to many idiots on some of these single cell storms which seem the be the problem. They line up down the road with out a clue about what they are doing. Just because you have access to a labtop that has doppler radar does not make you a storm chaser. People like Tim Samaras who is out there trying to collect data to save lives now has his life taken away because idiots looking for thrills with a camera are getting in the way.


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