November 12, 1957|
Lakewood, Colorado, U.S.
|Died||May 31, 2013
El Reno, Oklahoma, U.S.
|Institutions||Applied Research Associates|
|Known for||Tornado field research|
|Children||Paul Samaras (deceased)
Timothy Michael Samaras (November 12, 1957 ‒ May 31, 2013) was an American engineer and storm chaser best known for his field research on tornadoes and time on the Discovery Channel show, Storm Chasers.
Samaras was born November 12, 1957 in Lakewood, Colorado, to Paul T. and Margaret L. Samaras. Paul (1925-2005) was a photographer and model airplane distributor who was an Army projectionist in WWII. Tim assisted in the photography and shop work. Margaret was born in 1926 and died in 2006. His mother talked him into watching an annual television broadcast of The Wizard of Oz at age six. "When the tornado appeared", he recalled. "I was hooked!" It was the scene where the sky was black and got darker. The hens began to go around in circles and the horses ran out of the barn. Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and their three farmworkers were shouting as well as clutching on to their hats. Bundles of weeds blew past, then whole small trees. A wide black swirling column loomed on the horizon. It howled like an express train. Dorothy and Toto struggled to get through the gate. But no sooner were they safe in the farmhouse then the window fell in, and the entire house took off into that storm, tumbling through the inky clouds. He attended Lasley Elementary and O'Connell Junior High in Lakewood, before graduating from Alameda High School in 1976. In his twenties, he began to chase storms "not for the thrill, but the science."
Samaras was an autodidact who never received a college degree. He became an amateur radio operator at age 12 and built transmitters using old television sets. As an adult he held an Amateur Extra Class license, the highest amateur radio class issued in the United States, and was proficient in Morse code. He used ham radio for communications when storm chasing and was also a storm spotter, reporting sightings of hazardous weather. At 16, he was a radio technician and was service shop foreman at 17. Immediately out of high school and without a résumé, he was hired as a walk in at the University of Denver Research Institute. He obtained a Pentagon security clearance by 20, testing and building weapons systems.
Samaras became a prominent engineer at Applied Research Associates initially focusing on blast testing and airline crash investigations. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recognized him for his investigations of the TWA Flight 800 crash. His research included high-speed photography, such as on ballistics. He also worked at National Technical Systems and Hyperion Technology Group.
In addition to tornadoes, he was interested in all aspects of convective storms with particular research focus on lightning, for which he utilized cameras shooting up to 1.4 million fps. An accomplished photographer and videographer, another research method was photogrammetry, with some footage derived from cameras in probes shooting from within tornadoes. Samaras also shot for art and for pleasure. He was an avid amateur astronomer and also interested in electronics and inventions.
Samaras was the founder of a field research team called Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes EXperiment (TWISTEX) which sought to better understand tornadoes. His work was funded in large part by the National Geographic Society (NGS) which awarded him 18 grants for his field work.
Samaras designed and built his own weather instruments, known as probes, and deployed them in the path of tornadoes in order to gain scientific insight into the inner workings of a tornado. With one such in-situ probe, he captured the largest drop in atmospheric pressure, 100 hPa (mb) in less than one minute, ever recorded when a F4 tornado struck one of several probes placed near Manchester, South Dakota on June 24, 2003. The accomplishment is listed in the Guinness World Records as "greatest pressure drop measured in a tornado". The probe was dropped in front of the oncoming tornado a mere 82 seconds before it hit. The measurement is also the lowest pressure, 850 hectopascals (25.10 inHg), ever recorded at Earth's surface when adjusted for elevation. Samaras later described the tornado as the most memorable of his career. Samaras' aerodynamic probes were a breakthrough design for survivability inside tornadoes. A patent was pending for instrumentation measuring winds in 3D. Samaras held a patent, "Thermal imaging system for internal combustion engines", with Jon M. Lesko.
Samaras and his team logged over 35,000 miles (56,000 km) of driving during the two peak months of tornado season each year. When asked, Samaras said that the most dangerous part about following tornadoes is not the actual storms themselves, but rather the road hazards encountered along the way. In total, he tracked down more than 125 tornadoes during his career. His colleagues considered him to be one of the most careful chasers in the business.
Beginning in 1998, Samaras founded and co-produced (with Roger Hill) the National Storm Chasers Convention, an annual event held near Denver and attended by hundreds of chasers from around the world. Samaras's widow, Kathy, revealed in her first news interview since his death that she will continue ChaserCon, which consistently attracts luminary scientists and chasers as speakers. In 2005, he was named an "Emerging Explorer" by the National Geographic Society. From 2009 until the show's cancellation in 2012, Samaras was a featured personality on the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers. He also worked for Boeing, doing field testing on hail-resistant skins for aircraft, and for the federal government during his career. According to Eileen O'Neill, president of the Discovery networks, Samaras' work was directly responsible for increased warning times ahead of tornadoes.
Samaras coauthored, along with Stefan Bechtel and Greg Forbes, Tornado Hunter: Getting Inside the Most Violent Storms on Earth (ISBN 978-1426203022), in 2009. Samaras authored or coauthored around one dozen scientific papers. He also contributed to Storm Track magazine. He appeared in major pieces in National Geographic in April 2004, June 2005, August 2012, and November 2013. He was also widely interviewed by news stations, newspapers, and magazines and appeared in documentaries.
In the spring of 2013, TWISTEX was conducting lightning research (including with a high-speed camera) when active tornadic periods ensued in mid to late May, so Samaras decided to deploy atmospheric pressure probes and to test infrasound tornado sensors that were still under development. At 6:23 p.m. on May 31, 2013, Samaras, his 24-year-old son Paul (a photographer), and TWISTEX team member Carl Young (a meteorologist), 45, were killed by a violent wedge tornado with winds of 302 mph (486 km/h) near El Reno, Oklahoma. The TWISTEX vehicle was struck by a subvortex, which generate the highest winds and some of which were moving at 175 mph (282 km/h) within the parent tornado. Their Chevy Cobalt was distinguishable as a vehicle to the first responding sheriff's deputy only due to its single intact wheel, as it had been compressed into a ball of metal after the tornado tumbled it approximately one-half mile (0.8 km). Prior to their tragic deaths, Young drove that car while the elder Samaras sat next to him.
The tornado was sampled by University of Oklahoma RaXPol radar as 2.6 miles (4.2 km) wide, the widest tornado ever recorded. The true size of the multiple-vortex tornado confused onlookers by its mammoth proportions containing orbiting subvortices larger than average tornadoes and its expansive transparent to translucent outer circulation. The strong inflow and outer circulation winds in conjunction with rocky roads and a relatively underpowered vehicle also hampered driving away from the tornado. The tornado simultaneously took an unexpected sharp turn closing on their position as it rapidly accelerated within a few minutes from about 20 mph (32 km/h) to as much as 60 mph (97 km/h) in forward movement and swiftly expanded from about 1 mile (1.6 km) to 2.6 miles (4.2 km) wide in about 30 seconds, and was mostly obscured in heavy precipitation, all of which combined so that several other chasers were also hit or had near misses. It was the first known instance of a storm chaser or a meteorologist killed by a tornado.
Even before it was known that Samaras, his son, and Young had been killed, the event led many to question storm chasing tactics particularly in close proximity to tornadoes. In addition to the three TWISTEX members, the tornado took the lives of seven other people, including local resident Richard Charles Henderson who decided to follow the storm.
Atmospheric scientists and storm chasers embarked on a major project to gather information and analyze what happened regarding chaser actions and meteorological occurrences. A makeshift memorial was established at the site soon after the incident and a crowdfunded permanent memorial is under development, spearheaded by Doug Gerten, the deputy who first found the vehicle wreckage.
Meteorologists at the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issued a statement saying they were very saddened by Tim's death. "Samaras was a respected tornado researcher and friend ... who brought to the field a unique portfolio of expertise in engineering, science, writing and videography," read the statement. Severe weather expert Greg Forbes called Samaras "a groundbreaker in terms of the kind of research he was doing on severe thunderstorms and tornadoes". Meteorologist Jim Cantore remarked "This is a very sad day for the meteorological community and the families of our friends lost. Tim Samaras was a pioneer and great man." National Geographic remarked "Tim was a courageous and brilliant scientist who fearlessly pursued tornadoes and lightning in the field in an effort to better understand these phenomena." On Facebook, Samaras' brother said he died "doing what [he] LOVED. Chasing Tornado's [sic]". On June 2, Discovery dedicated "Mile Wide Tornado: Oklahoma," a special about the May 20 Moore, Oklahoma tornado, to the memory of Samaras and his TWISTEX colleagues.
Samaras is survived by his brothers Jim and Jack, wife Kathy, two daughters, two grandchildren, and a son from a previous relationship, Matt Winter. His memorial service was held on June 6, 2013, at Mission Hills Church in Littleton, Colorado.
Samaras and his wife Kathy had three children: Paul (born November 12, 1988), Amy Gregg, and Jennifer Scott. The family lived on 35 acres near Bennett, Colorado, at the time of his death. The open space enabled Tim to erect ham radio and other towers and provided ample room for workshops. He learned of the property through real estate investment work that he did on the side and to which his brother Jim introduced him. Samaras had another son, Matt Winter, whom he had only learned about seven years before Samaras' death and who was welcomed into the family. Winter was also fascinated by weather and was informed by his mother that Tim was his father after he heard Samaras speak at the 2006 Severe Storms and Doppler Radar Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.
In 2011, Samaras took time off chasing to help build homes in Alabama for victims of tornadoes earlier that year. According to O'Neill he worked "from dawn to dusk" with "the same dedication and focus he brought to his meteorological work".
- "Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras funeral services set for Littleton on Thursday". Denver Post. June 5, 2013. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
- "Tim Samaras: Bio, Videos and Photos". TWC Personalities. The Weather Channel. February 16, 2009. Retrieved June 3, 2013.
- "Death of a storm chaser". The Economist. June 15, 2013.
- Padilla, Anica; Tak Landrock (Jun 2, 2013). "Colorado storm chaser Tim Samaras killed in Oklahoma tornado along with son and longtime partner". KMGH-TV. Retrieved 2013-06-03.
- Samaras, Tim. "WJ0G". Callsign Lookup. QRZ.com. Retrieved 2013-10-19.
- Draper, Robert (Nov 2013). "Last Days of a Storm Chaser". National Geographic 133 (11).
- Hargrove, Brantley (Aug 29, 2013). "The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras". Dallas Observer (Dallas, TX). Retrieved 2013-08-29.
- "Tim Samaras Dead: Oklahoma Tornado Kills Storm Chaser, Son Paul Samaras, and Chase Partner Carl Young". The Weather Channel. Jun 2, 2013. Retrieved 2013-06-02.
- "Greatest pressure drop measured in a tornado". The Guinness Book of World Records. Retrieved 2013-06-02.
- Lee, Julian J.; T.M. Samaras, C.R. Young (Oct 2004). "22nd Conf Severe Local Storms". Hyannis, MA: American Meteorological Society.
- "World: Lowest Sea Level Air Pressure (excluding tornadoes)". World Weather / Climate Extremes Archive. World Meteorological Organization.
- Simpson, Kevin (Oct 2013). "Chasing the Beast". The Denver Post. Retrieved 2014-01-08.
- Patent US5922948 - Thermal imaging system for internal combustion engines - Google Patents
- Eileen O'Neill (June 3, 2013). "Remembering Tim Samaras and Carl Young". Discovery. Retrieved June 4, 2013.
- Payne, David (May 1, 2014). "Tim Samaras' Wife Opens Up About The Storm Chaser's Life". KWTV. Retrieved 2014-05-07.
- Meredith Blake (June 2, 2013). "Tornado kills Storm Chasers' Carl Young, Tim and Paul Samaras". LA Times. Retrieved June 8, 2013.
- Vesilind, Priit J.; Carsten Peter (photographer) (April 2004). "Chasing Tornadoes". National Geographic.
- Lange, Karen E.; Tim Samaras (photographs) (June 2005). "Inside Tornadoes". National Geographic.
- Johnson, George; Carsten Peter (photographer) (August 2012). "Chasing Lightning". National Geographic.
- "El Reno tornado". Storm Events Database. National Climatic Data Center. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-27.
- Snyder, Jeff; H. B. Bluestein (2014). "Some Considerations for the Use of High-Resolution Mobile Radar Data in Tornado Intensity Determination". Wea. Forecast. doi:10.1175/WAF-D-14-00026.1.
- "Central Oklahoma Tornadoes and Flash Flooding - May 31, 2013". National Weather Service Norman Oklahoma. 2013. Retrieved 2013-06-04.
- Davies, Jon (Jun 4, 2013). "The El Reno tornado - unusual & very deadly". Retrieved 2013-06-10.
- Masters, Jeff (Jun 2, 2013). "Tornado Scientist Tim Samaras and Team Killed in Friday's El Reno, OK Tornado". Weather Underground. Retrieved 2013-06-04.
- Samenow, Jason (Jun 1, 2013). "The day that should change tornado actions and storm chasing forever". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-06-04.
- El Reno Survey – A survey of the tornado of 31 May 2013
- Draper, Robert (May 27, 2014). "Storm Chaser Tim Samaras: One Year After His Death, His Gift Is Unmatched". National Geographic. Retrieved 2014-06-01.
- Konopasek, Michael (May 6, 2014). "Deputy Works To Create Memorial For Samaras Storm Chasing Team". KWTV News 9.
- "NOAA statement on deaths of storm researchers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young" (Press release). NOAA Office of Communications. Jun 3, 2013.
- Stanley, Deb (June 6, 2013). "Memorial service Thursday for storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, killed in El Reno tornado". KMGH-TV. Retrieved 2013-10-19.
- Thunder Chase - Samaras' personal storm chasing website
- Explorers bio at National Geographic Society
- Viewing the El Reno Storm (WeatherBrains coverage of El Reno incident)
- Chasing and Pressure Drop (WeatherBrains interview of Samaras in 2009)
- Safety Lessons From El Reno (storm chasing analysis by Skip Talbot, earlier shorter analysis here)
- El Reno: Lessons From the Most Dangerous Tornado in Storm Observing History (NWS Norman, OK)
- Tim Samaras at the Internet Movie Database
- Tim Samaras at Find a Grave