Tim Samaras: Weather community remembers pioneering tornado chaser


In this May 26, 2006, file photo Tornado chaser Tim Samaras shows the probes he uses when trying to collect data in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

The death of pioneering storm chaser Tim Samaras, his son, Paul Samaras, and chase partner Carl Young Friday in the intense tornado that struck west of Oklahoma City, has shocked and shaken the chaser and meteorological communities.


Severe storm/lightning researcher and tornado chaser Tim Samaras shows off his 1,680 pound 1.4 million frames per second camera called “The Kahuna” during the 15th annual ChaserCon in Denver, Colorado in this February 18, 2013 file photo. (REUTERS/Gene Blevins/Files)

Samaras, who chased storms for 30 years, was best known for sampling conditions inside a tornado, and measuring the largest pressure drop ever recorded. He initiated and led the field campaign known as TWISTEX – Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes EXperiment, which resulted in academic papers and the invention of storm-observing instrumentation.

National Geographic says Samaras was the first person to:
* design probes to measure data from inside the tornado.
* measure the temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction inside of a tornado
* design a camera that captures 1 million frames per second to record lightning strikes (the highest resolution/speed camera in the world).

Link: Tim Samaras biography

Those who knew Samaras personally described him as brilliant, compassionate, and selfless. As a chaser they say he was courageous, but, at the same time, careful putting safety first.

 

Here are a set of testimonials from a group of meteorologists and chasers who knew and admired Samaras:

Greg Forbes, severe weather expert at The Weather Channel via Facebook:

I truly admired the work of Tim Samaras and his team and was in awe of Tim’s genius. It’s amazing how he was able to imagine, then design, build and deploy the pods in the path of tornadoes, and his instruments made the Guiness Book of Records for measuring the lowest pressure in a tornado. I recently wrote a letter of recommendation for him in a proposal he was making to try to gain more funding for his research on tornadoes and lightning. It’s a loss to the whole meteorological community.

Howard Bluestein, professor of meteorology and leading tornado researcher, via email correspondence:

I have known Tim for many years as someone who shared our enthusiasm for severe weather. He designed some of the early miniature instruments deployed in the paths of tornadoes, particularly those with video cameras and temperature and pressure sensors. His work has been showcased and supported in part by the National Geographic Society, and displayed at the Denver Science Museum. More recently he has been working with high-speed lightning cameras. We have in the past, for a number of years, shared our groups’ status-update messages. He and Roger Hill ran the very successful National Tornado Chasers’ Convention in Denver each February. He was always a gentleman and shared his enthusiasm with the community. While not an academic or a member of a meteorological research laboratory, he has had a profound influence on all of us, and in particular through publications of the analyses of his data from TWISTEX. 

Reed Timmer, meteorologist and storm chaser, via Facebook:

Genius, pioneer in the science of meteorology, my mentor and someone I’ve looked up to my whole life, incredible father, a father figure to me in chasing who was always concerned about our safety as we were intercepting tornadoes. Selfless, passionate, and genuinely nice

This morning my heart sunk when I found out Tim Samaras, Carl Young, and Tim’s son lost their life on a storm chase a few days ago near El Reno. I’m still in disbelief.. this must be some kind of horrible dream. Of all people, Tim Samaras was the most controlled, safe storm chasing scientist I know. It doesn’t make sense. It always seems to happen to the best people.

Tim was at the forefront of the science of meteorology, from his state-of-the-art invention the “Kahuna” to measure lightning in high speed, to his world record pressure fall measurement with his probes inside the Manchester F4 tornado on June 24, 2003. Tim, Carl, and Paul were more than great friends of mine, they are also pioneering scientists whose work has already saved countless lives, and will save lives forever.

Robin Tanamachi, research meteorologist and chaser, via her blog Tornatrix.net:

Tim Samaras’ loss leaves a raw and painful void in tornado research. There is literally no one else in my field who possesses the multifaceted portfolio of expertise in engineering, science, writing, videography, and entertainment that he did.

John Davies, meteorologist and storm chaser, on Samaras and  chase partner Carl Young, via his “Severe Weather Notes” blog:

Tim and Carl were gentlemen, very considerate/ compassionate people, always balancing chasing safety and setting a good example with their up-close research work.

John Wetter, Minneapolis-based storm chaser via email correspondence:

I personally thought of Tim as a great role model for what I wanted to be as a storm chaser: respecting the power of mother nature, appreciating her beauty, and helping to teach and warn others.  I am inspired by Tim’s passion for severe weather research.  Tim invented the HITPR (Hardened In-situ Temperature and Pressure Recorder) to take measurements from within a tornado.  His engineering knowledge, instinct, and personality were infectious to those around him and to the public whenever he would present his research and findings.

The severe storms research and storm chasing communities have lost a respected leader.  Tim didn’t chase for short term fame or gain; he was concerned with research and scientific knowledge.  Tim had a conservative style of chasing and always held safety as his number one priority.  Whatever circumstances led to this terrible tragedy may never be fully understood, but have served as a reminder of the danger we accept by participating in this activity.

Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel, via Twitter:

 

National Weather Service forecast office in Norman, Oklahoma, via Facebook:

We are terribly saddened by this news. Samaras was a respected tornado researcher and friend of NOAA who brought to the field a unique portfolio of expertise in engineering, science, writing and videography. His work was documented through an extensive list of formal publications and conference papers.

Statement from National Geographic, which provided funding for Samaras’ research:

We were shocked and deeply saddened by the news that longtime National Geographic grantee Tim Samaras was killed in a tornado in Oklahoma on Friday, along with Tim’s son Paul and their colleague Carl Young. Tim was a courageous and brilliant scientist who fearlessly pursued tornadoes and lightning in the field in an effort to better understand these phenomena. The National Geographic Society made 18 grants to Tim for research over the years for field work like he was doing in Oklahoma at the time of his death, and he was one of our 2005 Emerging Explorers. Tim’s research included creation of a special probe he would place in the path of a twister to measure data from inside the tornado; his pioneering work on lightning was featured in the August 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine. Though we sometimes take it for granted, Tim’s death is a stark reminder of the risks encountered regularly by the men and women who work for us. This is an enormous loss for his family, his wide circle of friends and colleagues and National Geographic.

In his own words, autobiographical video “About Tim Samaras”:

Samaras’ last television interview, via MSNBC, on May 31, 2013:

Related links:

Our Haunting Last Interview With Storm Chaser Samaras (National Geographic)

Video from ABC: Tornado Death Toll Includes Veteran Storm Chaser and Son

UPDATE, Monday, 10:35 p.m.: One more tribute to Samaras very much worth reading by chaser Roger Edwards: In Memoriam: Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, Carl Young

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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