Tim Samaras

I’m not sure why I chase storms. Perhaps it’s to witness the incredible beauty of what Mother Nature can create.

Storm chasing (definition)

The pursuit of any severe weather condition, regardless of motive, which can be curiosity, adventure, scientific investigation, or for news or media coverage. A person who chases storms is known as a storm chaser, or simply a chaser.


 

At 6.23pm on May 31, 2013, the screeching cry of a black wind shattered across the sprawling plains southeast of El Reno, Olkahnoma. The monstrous whirlwind swiftly expanded from 1.6km to 4.2 km wide in under 30 seconds, lashing ravenous, orbiting sub-vortices in its wake – the widest tornado ever recorded. In the midst of this deadly storm, legendary chaser and pioneer Tim Samaras, along with his 24 year old son, Paul Samaras and meteorologist Carl Young had been conducting lightning research; positioning atmospheric pressure probes and infrasound tornado sensors into the paths of a twister. Throughout the active tornadic periods of mid to late May, the trio had been seeking to penetrate the concentric walls of each tornado and collect data from its rotating eye. What ensued occurred in a matter of seconds.  With visibility shrouded by thick bands of heavy precipitation, the storm raked across the plains. Suddenly and without warning, the tornado turned on its violent path; its yawning mouth hurtling rapidly from 32km/h to 97 km/h in minutes. The devastating fatality to Tim Samaras and his team had been the first known instance of a storm chaser killed by a tornado.

Every year, between the periods of late spring and early summer, hundreds of chasers mount their vehicles and drive long distances searching for the perfect storm. Tracing a long belt of country known as Tornado Alley that runs through the middle and south east region of the United States, these seekers chase the breath of the storm to regard the awesome complexity of tornadoes in flight. Driven by a wild mission that calls them to the edge of human experience, we investigate the pursuit of storm chasing and the fervent devotion that calls many to search for answers beyond the limits of the human imagination.

storms rolling in over corn fields camille seamanPhotography by Camille Seaman

cHASING THE STORM

BRANTLEY HARGROVE

Author, ‘The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras “


Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always been fascinated by tornadoes. Tornadoes were a fact of life in Texas, and they continue to be;  I’ve had some pretty hairy experiences with tornadoes in my area. I think that left a lasting impact on me. For the rest of my days after that, I always sort of wanted to see one. One of my first newspaper jobs was at a paper in Wyoming, and I distinctly remember the first time I saw a funnel cloud. There was this reported tornado that touched down outside the city and me and the photographer went out and chased it. I didn’t see just a whole lot of it but I mean it was an exhilarating experience. We didn’t know the first thing about storm chasing but we would take off after it just to see if we could see something.

The Bod Edit: What do you think draws people to Storm Chase?

Brantley Hargrove: I don’t think many people can see a tornado just once and turn away from that, and not go chasing again. I know that was certainly true for me. A lot of  people come at it from many different ways. Some people didn’t grow up out in tornado alley, but they are still fascinated by it.

Brantley Hargrove, Author of ‘The Man Who Caught the Storm”

There’s a certain electricity in the air, that you can tell; a kind of frizz of sensation that happens.

How would you know a tornado was about to come?

A lot of the time the storms you get come through the night. I have distinct memories of waking up after a really bad storm overnight, and finding our plastic lawn chairs had been blown from the porch and that one of their legs had impaled our little camping trailer. I had this oversized trampoline –  a lot of kids I knew did – and one day we woke up and it was in the trees. You could always tell when they were coming, because in the daytime the sky can take on this ominous green colour. 

Not always, but sometimes they do. There’s a certain electricity in the air, that you can tell; a kind of frizz of sensation that happens. It’s a certain kind of feeling of ‘okay there’s potential energy here, I feel like it’s going to get sped’. The Jarrell Texas F5 tornado happened in ‘97. I didn’t see it, but I distinctly remember going outside that afternoon as it was occuring, and I’ll never forget the sky was just this pea soup green. It was just the strangest thing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Those were the strangest skies I’ve ever witnessed.

Brantley Hargrove, Author of ‘The Man Who Caught the Storm”

The serious ones are the same in that they are all obsessed by trying to find these events and will drive to the ends of the earth to see them.

Is there a specific personality that is drawn to storm chasing?

They run the gambit really. Some are blue collar people, some of them are people with pHds, wealthy, you know. They’re all types that come to storm chasing, so it would be hard to pin one sort of archetype. But there are probably a couple of hundred of the serious ones. In some sense the serious ones are the same in that they are all obsessed by trying to find these events and will drive to the ends of the earth to see them.

 

What makes Tornadoes so complex?

No two tornadoes really are the same. They can be so different depending on the conditions. Some of them are pretty simple, two cell tornadoes, that just look like the archetypical presentation of a tornado which is this long tube. And some of them have multiple vortices. They can be this shaft through which these smaller vortices move. Tornado formation is incredibly complex and there are still aspects of it that we don’t understand. But generally, you’re going to have some kind of upward draft and some kind of convergence at the near surface level to focus that broadly rotating air into the sharper vertical vorticity.

Brantley Hargrove, Author of ‘The Man Who Caught the Storm”

It’s a truly strange thing to see something that is bigger than any skyscraper, bigger than any structure you can imagine, and it’s constantly moving.

There must be this incredible sense of wonder when you behold a tornado.

It’s a truly strange thing to see something that is bigger than any skyscraper, bigger than any structure you can imagine, and it’s constantly moving. It’s just a very odd thing and there’s really no preparing yourself for it. You can’t really imagine it until you’re there and you get a feel for the scale of it. And just being inside this system; we were standing probably a mile from it, less at times, you could feel the wind pulling past you into the tornado. It’s.. you get a sense for the enormous size of the processes that are at work.

Is there a sound that tornadoes make?

Oh sure yeah, they definitely make different sounds. It kind of depends on where they are. If the tornado is going through a populated area with lots of structures, there will be a sort of low frequency roar. The tornadoes that I saw were going mostly through open cropland and I always thought it manifested as more of a white water sound; a really enormous waterfall.

Brantley Hargrove, Author of ‘The Man Who Caught the Storm”

It can seem like there are no mysteries left sometimes, but there are.

Storm chasing itself is incredibly fascinating because it’s not available to most people, unless you live around the area. So what would you like others to understand about them?

If, like me, you live in a big city and in an urban environment, I think there’s a tendency to think that the natural world is something you needn’t concern yourself with; that we are masters of our domain. But one of the things I learnt about tornadoes is that we are most certainly not. There are still things out there that we cannot control and that we don’t understand. It can seem like there are no mysteries left sometimes, but there are. Tornadoes are one of those mysteries that we still don’t fully have a handle on, that we still don’t fully understand. I think it’s comforting in a way, that there are still unknowns out there, a nd that there are people like Tim Samaras that are out there, living these great, adventurous lives, risking everything to understand these really mysterious phenomena.

purple storm shot by camille seaman Photography by Camille Seaman

Capturing The Storm

Camille Seaman

Photographer & Storm chaser


Camille Seaman, Photographer & Storm Chaser

I think, as humans, we should see storms as part of us.

My grandfather would take us out to the nature. One time he took us out, it was very hot. He had us sit there until we were sweating profusely, and after a few more minutes when we were just about to pass out, he pointed up to the sky, and where there were no clouds before, there was this small tuft of cloud that appeared. “That’s your water that’s making this cloud appear,” he said, “that’s your sweat that becomes the rain, that waters the plants, that feeds the animals that feed us”. So in this way, he was always make us feel that connection. When I was photographing storms, I couldn’t help but to hear or feel his teachings as we were chasing.  When I look up at a storm, the same thing happens as when I look at an iceberg. I think, “how many ancestor’s sweat is this? How many ancestor’s water is this?” More and more, as we see what climate change is doing, we have to acknowledge that we are all a part of this closed eco-system called Earth. There is no such thing as separate, and no such thing as throwing away. So I think, as humans, we should see storms as part of us.

The Bod Edit: How did storm chasing find you?

Camille Seaman: I had experienced great success with my iceberg work, and many magazines, publications and outlets were asking me all the time; ‘so what are you working on now? What’s your next project?’. I am such a serendipitous creator, I don’t have plans, I go with the flow and where things move me. And I like it that way. One day I was vacuuming in our living room in Berkeley, my daughter was sitting on the couch watching ‘Storm Chasers’ on the Nat Geo channel, and I just happened to look and the colour and the light was amazing. So during a commercial break, I went into our computer room and Googled storm chasing, and this whole world appeared that I hadn’t never even heard of or thought about. Just three days after, I was out there in Kansas in Oklahoma chasing these storms. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I realised that I had fallen in love. I wanted to do more. By the end of that week of chasing, I said to the guy I chased with, you know ‘if anyone else cancels this season please let me know, I’d love to come back and do this’ . He said, ‘can you drive?’ and I said ‘I happen to have a commercial driver’s license, I can carry upto 15 passengers’, and he was like, ‘you’re hired!’. So after just one week of chasing, I became a paid professional chaser.

Camille Seaman, Photographer & Storm Chaser

It’s still possible for the sun to be shining to your West, and then right in front of you is this great apocalyptic darkness with these incredible colours of turquoise.

How did it feel being so close to the storm for the first time?

That’s what I wasn’t prepared for. Chasing storms is such a tactile experience, it’s not just visual. First of all, you’re standing in front storms and some of them are literally up to 50 miles wide. How do you even begin to photograph something that’s 50 miles wide and reaches 65000 feet into the atmosphere? It’s still possible for the sun to be shining to your West, and then right in front of you is this great apocalyptic darkness with these incredible colours of turquoise. So being under one of these storms, in front of it, is just incredible. And of course there is the movement of the wind, there is lightning, and there is this kind of smell that’s an electric smell of just before it rains. So all of that is lending to that experience that’s truly awesome and humbling to be in front of.

Camille Seaman, Photographer & Storm Chaser

To see this creation and destruction happening in front of you, is such a rare thing.

It’s scary. It can be scary. There are these huge strikes called cloud- to-ground lightning. Huge strikes that looks like they’re about to flit across. And literally, when they hit the ground, it shakes and they start fires and you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to go out in that’. But it gets to the point where you just have to go. But then there’s also such beautiful moments. No two storms are the same, each one is such an individual. To see this creation and destruction happening in front of you, is such a rare thing.

Camille Seaman, Photographer & Storm Chaser

It was one of the most beautiful storms I had ever witnessed… I just thought, ‘I shall call you The Lovely Monster’.

What’s been your most memorable experience if you could choose one?

The one that became the cover of my book.I remember standing in the wheatfield in Nebraska. It was one of the most beautiful storms I had ever witnessed. It was just swirling in front of us, over the farm. I just thought, I shall call you ‘The Lovely Monster’. I asked the guy who was our meteorologist, ‘are we okay here?’ because it was literally heading right for us. He said ‘oh yeah, it’s no problem’. We let the storm roll over us and it was the most overwhelming sensation. It very rarely happens to me as a photographer, but I was just dumbstruck,  I didn’t even know where to point the camera, it was just so overwhelming, I didn’t know what to do. There are beautiful moments, and there are terrible moments where you’re driving through a town that’s just been devastated and people have died. That’s also humbling, and you have to have incredible compassion, knowing that these people live with that every year.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned through your series?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is something I can carry with me in every aspect of my life. And that is to stay in the moment, be present and open for anything to happen. Because anything can happen. And you know that saying, ‘chance favours the prepared’? I think that that’s what that means; being in the moment. When you’re open to something, that something is going to happen. And if you’ve done your homework, then you are prepared to face it, no matter what it is. It’s not even a question of what’s good or bad, life just is. And so when you’re in the moment, I’m able to be present and see how wonderful and how beautiful this life is and this planet is. And that it’s worth saving. Chasing has made me realise that this planet is a wonder. Some of the things I’ve seen whilst chasing look like they’re from a science fiction movie. They’re from another planet. It seems impossible that they’re happening on this planet. But there they are, right before my eyes. And so I wish that more people could see that and experience that safely,  and not feel fear, but feel awe and again appreciate this planet that we have.

BIOGRAPHY

Brantley Hargrove reporter and author of The Man Who Caught the Storm, the American bestseller on the life and death of legendary storm chaser and tornado researcher Tim Samaras. Occasional storm chaser he has chased violent storms from the Great Plains down to the Texas coast, including a land-falling Category 4 hurricane and one of the rarest tornadic events in recent memory. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Renee, and their two

Follow Brantley @BrantHargrove


Tim Samaras was a legendary storm chaser, American engineer  best known for his field research on tornadoes and time on the Discovery Channel show, Storm Chasers. His work on storm prediction ultimately cost him his life when he was caught in a tornado incident in May 2013.


Camille Seaman is a photographer and born 1969 to a Native American (Shinnecock tribe) father and African American mother. Her work on “The Last Iceberg” garnered attention worldwide both from the scientific and photographic community. Camille moved on to profile storms becoming a storm chaser between 2008 – 2014. She was following the 2013 storm that took Tim Samaras’ life.  She now takes photographs all over the world using digital and film cameras in multiple formats. She works in a documentary/fine art tradition and since 2003 has concentrated on the fragile environment of the Polar Regions.

Follow Camille @camilleseaman

 

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