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Chasing Tornadoes On Assignment

Chasing Tornadoes On Assignment

Chasing Tornadoes
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By Priit J. VesilindPhotographs by Carsten Peter



Stalking the funnel clouds that rip through America's heartland, a National Geographic team gets in close for a terrifying look at the workings of the deadly storms.



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Around dinner hour on June 24, 2003, the entire hamlet of Manchester, South Dakota—walls and rooftops, sheds and fences, TVs, refrigerators, and leftover casseroles—lifts from the earth and disappears into a dark, thick, half-mile-wide tornado. The pieces whirl high in the twister's 200-mile-an-hour (322-kilometer-an-hour) winds, like so much random debris swept clean from the landscape. A mile or so north of town 36-year-old Rex Geyer pulls the curtains back from the window of an upstairs bedroom and watches Manchester disappear. Rex stands frozen. The tornado seems to be standing still too, not moving one way or the other. It takes him a fearsome minute to realize what that means—that the deadly storm is coming straight for him. Just earlier, Rex had sat down to fried chicken with his wife, Lynette, who is eight months pregnant. "We had heard about some wicked tornadoes down in Woonsocket, where Lynette's from," he would say later. "We were keeping our eyes on the TV, and I was looking outside, and I said, 'Well, geez, it don't really look that bad.' " But now rain is pounding down, obscuring the monster storm bearing down on his two-story farmhouse. Rex's brother Dan, who lives up the road, charges into the house. "He almost rips the screen door off the hinges, and he's hollering, 'We gotta get into the basement!' But I just saw the Manchester debris and don't think we'll survive in the basement, so we pile into Dan's car."
 
"Should I turn the lights and the TV off?" Lynette asks. She hasn't seen the storm.
 
"No, no! We have to go now!" They leave everything but a mobile phone.
 
As they flee, two cars hurtle down a nearby dirt road in the opposite direction—straight at the tornado. Tim Samaras, a 45-year-old electronics engineer from Denver, and his storm-chasing partner, Pat Porter, are in a van that carries six probes, often called "turtles"—squat, 45-pound (20-kilogram) metal disks that look like flying saucers. Through embedded sensors, the probes can measure a tornado's wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature. Samaras's mission, and his passion, is to plant them in the path of the funnel. His hope is that both he and the instruments survive.

Photographer Carsten Peter hangs halfway out the window of the other speeding car, which is driven by veteran storm chaser Gene Rhoden. With them is another kind of probe, a pyramid-shaped aluminum casing loaded with a video and three 35-mm still cameras. Tinman, the team calls it, based on the character from The Wizard of Oz. No one has ever filmed the inside of a tornado—where wind can chew asphalt off a road and drive wooden splinters into tree trunks. Carsten wants to be the first.

The chasers can hear the tornado's jet engine roar and see it snapping power poles as they veer east onto a paved road, past the Geyers' farm and directly into the path of the funnel. Tim skids to a halt to make a drop. "We don't have time! We don't have time!" Pat yells. The monster is plowing up ground only a hundred yards away, and the inflow wind is revving up as Tim leaps out just long enough to deposit a probe before scrambling back in. As the chasers speed away, they can see debris roaring in above them: Nails, wire, two-by-fours whip by in winds that will soon reach 200 miles (300 kilometers) an hour.

Moments later the cars stop again a short distance down the road. Carsten and Gene haul the 95-pound (45-kilogram) Tinman from their car onto the roadside and activate the cameras while Tim drops another turtle. Two so far. Good, good. But now the tornado is chasing them.

They blast down the road once more, and Tim deploys a third probe. Tinman and two of the three probes take direct hits. The tornado reaches one probe a mere 80 seconds after Tim sets it in place. But suddenly the fury is spent. The tornado changes shape, stretching out long and ropey before rolling limply to the side. And then it simply evaporates.  


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Sights & Sounds
Speed into the path of an oncoming tornado with National Geographic Ultimate Explorer Correspondent Lisa Ling, storm researcher Tim Samaras, and photographer Carsten Peter and view up-close footage of an F4 tornado.

Multimedia
VIDEO Houses obliterated, telephone poles snapped, and fences stripped of barbed wire—Samaras and Peter share their adventures on the edge of one of nature's most destructive forces.

AUDIO Hear the full interview (recommended for low-speed connections).
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Video
If there's anything storm chasers need to know, it's when to run.

Animation
Watch simulations of a tornado generating storm (high-res / low-res) and the life cycle (high-res / low-res) of a tornado.

Forum
Most of the storm chasers tearing down America's highways are doing it as a hobby, and some are customers of the thriving tornado chase tour industry. Due to the risks involved—car accidents, lightning, flying debris—should tornado chasing be left to the experts?

Postcards
Put a friend in the race against a roaring tornado with an image from the storm chase.

Poll
Storm Chasing
Would you participate in a tornado chase?
Yes      No


More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The tornado that tore through Manchester, South Dakota, on June 24, 2003, was one of 67 that struck the state that day, tying a national record for the number of tornadoes within a state in a 24-hour period. The record was established on September 20, 1967, as Hurricane Beulah came ashore near Brownsville, Texas, and worked her way inland. Although the National Weather Service (NWS) records the data as the number of tornadoes within a state in a 24-hour calendar day, their records show that Beulah's tornadoes occurred through the 20-hour period between 3 a.m. and 11 p.m. According to the records of the Sioux Falls office of the NWS, the first South Dakota tornado touched down just after 5 p.m., and the last lifted just before 11 o'clock, leaving the residents of eastern South Dakota with memories of an incredible six-hour period.
 
The Sioux Falls Forecast Office of the NWS has put together a comprehensive Web page about the June 24 outbreak that includes photographs, maps, and a report from Tim Samaras about his probe drops.  You can find the page at
www.crh.noaa.gov/fsd/soo/tor062403/24jun03tor1.htm.
 
—Patricia Kellogg
Did You Know?

Related Links
Tornado Project Online
www.tornadoproject.com/
This commercial website is a great source for tornado lore and links. Its section on safety in a variety of circumstances is one of the best on the Internet.
 
Online Tornado FAQ
www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado
Roger Edwards, with the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center, has assembled an outstanding site that covers everything about tornadoes, from how they form to current research in the field.  He has included dozens of embedded links.

Storm Chasing
webserv.chatsystems.com/~doswell/chasesums/Chase_safety.html.

A leading tornado researcher provides storm chasers with a guide to safety and responsibility in the field.
 
Tornadoes
www.noaa.gov/tornadoes.html
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's tornado page has links to several safety guides, tornado statistics, and a page that lets you check the probability of a tornado occurring near where you live. Included are links to the Storm Prediction Center and the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration
www.nationalgeographic.com/research/index.html
Tim Samaras's work was funded in part by National Geographic's Research, Conservation and Exploration Group.

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Bibliography
Bluestein, Howard B. Tornado Alley: Monster Storms of the Great Plains. Oxford University Press, 1999.
 
Bradford, Marlene. Scanning the Skies: A History of Tornado Forecasting. University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
 
Cox, John D. Storm Watchers: The Turbulent History of Weather Prediction from Franklin's Kite to El Niño. John Wiley and Sons, 2002.
 
Grazulis, Thomas P. The Tornado: Nature's Ultimate Windstorm. University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

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NGS Resources
Johnson, Rebecca L. Weather and Climate. National Geographic Books, 2003.

Skelton, Renee. "Tornado!" National Geographic Kids (June 2003), 30-32.
 
Collins, Andrew. Storms. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Banks, Suzy. "Tornado Chasing." National Geographic Traveler (April 1999), 122-25.
 
Parfit, Michael. "Living With Natural Hazards." National Geographic (July 1998), 2-39.
 
de Blij, H. J. Restless Earth. National Geographic Books, 1997.
 
Dunn, Jerry. "Winds of Fury: Twister." National Geographic Kids (May 1997), 30-34.
 
Miller, Peter. "Tornado!" National Geographic (June 1987), 690-715.

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