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Tim Samaras, 1957–2013

The engineer died doing what he loved: collecting tornado data

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As a child, Tim Samaras frustrated his parents by sneaking kitchen appliances into his bedroom to dismantle them. One day his mother had to coax him to come watch a movie musical with her. It was The Wizard of Oz, and the 9-year-old sat transfixed throughout the tornado scene. As he recalled last year, his only thought was: “I’ve got to take that apart!” For much of the last two decades, the tornado chaser tried to do just that (SN: 7/28/12, p. 32).

On May 31, Samaras, 55, died along with his 24-year-old son Paul and meteorologist Carl Young, 45. The storm chasers were caught in the widest twister in recorded U.S. history, just south of El Reno, Okla. The three are the first storm chasers known to be killed by a tornado, according to a statement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Norman, Okla.

An engineer, Samaras systematically probed how a tornado’s winds rev up. In 1999, he decided to build instruments and place them in the path of a tornado. He was told not to bother; that others had tried — and had proven that the instruments would never survive.

“Fortunately, I didn’t listen,” Samaras said. His probe would push into the ground as a tornado passed over, allowing him to map the wind fields inside in 3-D. He collected data demonstrating a record-breaking 100-millibar pressure drop inside an F-4 tornado and showed that the greatest acceleration of winds occurs in the bottom two feet of the funnel.

Anyone who explores new environments faces challenges, says John Francis, vice president for Research, Conservation and Exploration at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Biologists brave disease-carrying insects and perilous terrain to find new species. Volcanologists climb craters to study gurgling lava. Tornado chasers have a reputation as danger junkies, but not Samaras. “I never saw him as thriving on adrenalin,” Francis says. “I never saw him as anything but a serious researcher, driven to better understand these phenomena.” He and others describe Samaras as thoughtful, cautious and analytical.

In 2003, Francis signed off on the first of his organization’s 18 research grants to Samaras, to build a probe that would survive a tornado. Funding it “was a tough one for me,” Francis recalls, “because it was so experimental — so high risk from the sense of, would this even work? But in the end we felt he had the background and experience to pull it off.” For all Samaras’ accomplishments, Francis says, “we will miss Tim most because he was demure and just a wonderful person, accomplishing things that no one else on the planet had.”

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