The tornado of a lifetime snakes down a South Dakota road toward Tim Samaras, an engineer and avid tornado chaser from Denver. National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
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Tornado season runs from April to June in the Midwestern states and tornado survival and safety is an important topic. People often talk about the calm before a storm, and sometimes before a tornado hits, that idea is seen in action as heavy storms might appear to stop and all is quiet. When a tornado ripped through Dallas County Texas in 2012, tractors and trailers from Schneider National Trucking were caught in its path, destroying several rigs. If you can avoid being on the road during inclement weather, that’s the best option, but if that isn’t an option, be prepared. Getting caught in a tornado can be very scary when it’s just it and the open road ahead of you, but being prepared and being aware can save you from injuries or worse. Content brought to you by Open Road Drivers Plan, protecting your livelihood and CDL since 1989. Minutes earlier, the storm had destroyed the tiny village of Manchester, fortunately with no loss of life.
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. As a truck driver, you’re on the road all the time, in good weather and bad, earning your livelihood. While many believe an overpass is the best place to hide in a tornado, it’s actually one of the worst.
Know the weather for the cities you’ll be driving through that day and if the forecast is looking bleak, have a bag packed with water, non-perishable food and any medication you might need.
Be aware what you’re getting into and how to protect yourself, and you’ll be much better off. Samaras and a National Geographic team spent months on the front lines of severe storm research. A mile (1.6 kilometers) 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. Make sure the bag is easily accessible from the driver’s seat, just in case you need it quickly. The force of a tornado can pick up vehicles, even your 18-wheeler, and you don’t want to be anywhere near that. Find a gully, ditch or low spot in the ground and lie flat with your head protected by an object or just your arms if you can’t find an object to use. Through embedded sensors, the probes can measure a tornado's wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature. 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. 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. The monster is plowing up ground only a hundred yards (91.4 meters) away, and the inflow wind is revving up as Tim leaps out just long enough to deposit a probe before scrambling back in.
Carsten and Gene haul the 95-pound (43-kilogram) Tinman from their car onto the roadside and activate the cameras while Tim drops another turtle. But now the tornado is chasing them.They blast down the road once more, and Tim deploys a third probe. The tornado changes shape, stretching out long and ropey before rolling limply to the side.
About a thousand of them touch down in the United States each year, more than in any other country in the world.
Some are wispy and last only seconds, others rampage across the landscape for more than an hour, but few are as destructive as the one that obliterated Manchester.By definition tornadoes are rotating columns of air that extend from swelling cumulonimbus clouds to the ground.
No one fully understands tornado dynamics, but certain ingredients seem essential to the witches' brew from which twisters emerge: warm, humid air near the ground, colder air aloft, and shearing winds that change direction and speed with height.


The most destructive and deadly tornadoes form under the bellies of supercells, large long-lived thunderstorms whose winds are already in rotation. In such open country you can see entire supercells, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) wide, bulling over the land, spitting rain and hail, their cauliflower tops bursting into the stratosphere. But only one in a thousand thunderstorms becomes a supercell, and only one in five or six supercells spawns a tornado.Because it's so difficult to measure tornado winds and power, scientists measure tornadoes by the damage they cause. On the Fujita scale, developed by Ted Fujita of the University of Chicago, an F1 storm does moderate damage with hundred-mile-an-hour (160-kilometer-an-hour) winds.
Most warnings rely on the 121 radar stations of the National Weather Service, but conventional weather radar can miss the birth of a tornado in the five to six minutes it takes a unit's single beam to cover its range. Now scientists at the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) are working to adapt a shipboard system from the U.S. Spy-1 sends out multiple beams in continuous rotation and is five times faster than conventional radar.For three springs Carsten Peter and I pursue supercells and tornadoes with Tim Samaras, with Anton Seimon, a geographer from Boulder, Colorado, and with some other of America's best storm chasers. And, as it turns out, we won't really succeed until the last hours of our last day afield.We base ourselves in Boulder in the foothills of the Rockies, where the Great Plains stretch before us like a giant stage. For the first season, 2001, we hook up with Anton, Tim, and an all-star group of scientists in a six-car chase motorcade. Guiding us are several "nowcasters," meteorologists who continuously monitor weather information and send directions to us on the fly by cell phone.Our main nowcaster is Erik Rasmussen, a tornado researcher with the University of Oklahoma and one of the brightest stars in severe-storm meteorology.
Our task is to find this incipient monster, if it forms, get just to the southeast of it (the best position for Garsten to get revealing backlight), watch it develop, and ensure we can make a getaway if things get dicey.When we arrive in Texas, we're not alone.
In tornado country, especially since the 1996 motion picture Twister, storm chasing has become a phenomenon.
During peak season hundreds of people fan out over Tornado Alley, a belt between South Dakota and Texas. Their vehicles bristle with radio antennas and radar dishes, their dashboards outfitted with computers and satellite-linked televisions."Everyone can read the weather maps now," says Stephen Hodanish, a lightning specialist with the National Weather Service whom we meet in a honky-tonk one night.
So we all know where to go."Some tornado chasers think of it as a clever computer game come to life. Others become intimate with the atmosphere, the way a trail guide learns to know the woods. Recently, skilled chasers have formed companies that take tourists on "tornado safaris," competing to see who can get clients the best views of the storms. But science of this kind is challenging, for tornadoes resist analysis, and creative computer models can take researchers only so far.
Stationary radar can't see fine detail in distant storms because a radar beam loses focus over long distances, so Wurman's Doppler on Wheels (DOW) radar trucks intercept the storms and study their hidden structure at close range. Bluestein's new mobile Doppler radar has a beam so focused it can detect wind features as fine as 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) across.But field programs like these can be counted on one hand, so an extraordinary symbiosis has grown between severe-storm meteorologists and serious-minded amateur storm chasers. We caravan in the Texas Panhandle for days, Merle Haggard on the radio, tooling down the straightest roads in the world, chasing storms that only lease and don't deliver. A heavy wind has been unloading on the prairie, twisting the cottonwood leaves onto their pale backsides, leaving grain fields squirming.
By 4:40 we're in cattle country, where the towns are rawboned, as if the buildings had been scoured into packing crates by the prairie wind. So we decide to "punch the core" of the thunderstorm, forcing our way into the "bear's cage," an area between the main updralt and the hail. Ha-ha-ha!"When the storm spits us out, we stop to look back at the supercell steaming across the prairie. Stacks of cumulonimbus clouds pompadour from its top, and dark wisps of clouds curl like imps from the "wall cloud" that has dropped from its rear flank; that's where tornadoes are known to originate.
The storm does not deliver a tornado, but after it passes, lightning scorches the sky for half an hour.Brad Carter, Tim's chase partner for this trip, shakes his head. If I had seen one right away, on the first trip, maybe I wouldn't have gotten so hooked."Disappointments arrive daily now. The morning strategy sessions, the long drives, the wild chases across the High Plains, the spectacular busts. On the way to Colorado, my chase partner, Scott Elder, and I pull into Pierce City, Missouri, where just two weeks before an F3 had flattened homes and left the tidy brick shops and restaurants on the town's main street in rubble."We don't have a grocery store left in town," says the police chief, Mike Abramovitz. Sixty survived there.Over pancakes one morning, Jon Davies, a veteran meteorologist from Kansas, outlines a paradox, "It's so hard to reconcile the destruction of towns and people suffering," he says, "with something you enjoy doing.


These things turn people's lives upside down."Tornadoes have also ripped the southern plains in the 2003 season, and by the time Carsten, Scott, and I join Tim and Anton for the chase, they have already dropped one probe into a Texas twister.
Joshua Wurman's DOW trucks were out on the same storm, so there is complementary data to feed into the computer models. On a farm road between fallow cornfields, we find ourselves perpendicular to the storm's inflow wind. Red-brown soil flows across the road like liquid waves.And then the world seems to simply disappear. The convoy grinds to a halt as a sandstorm rages, its winds approaching 70 miles an hour (113 kilometers an hour), Tim estimates. We learn later that there was a tornado somewhere in that storm, but we sure as hell couldn't see it.Our field time is running out when we caravan into northern Nebraska on June 9.
Dew points are looking good there, and the National Weather Service promises a convergence of shearing winds. We'll get off the highway and assess the situation."Guided by the usual mix of computer images and eyeballing, we zigzag toward the South Dakota border, and by late afternoon we're in storm mode. It whirls like an apparition, no more than two miles (3.2 kilometers) from us, looking alien in the landscape, as if a spaceship had landed. I'm finally going to see a tornado.The tornado snakes down to the fields, where it's chewing up a maelstrom of soil and vegetation.
It just lifts up, as if the sky were withdrawing a finger back into its fist.But we're still racing toward the core of the storm, which will probably spawn more tornadoes.
We drive to Orchard, Nebraska, the hail still pelting the cars in the approaching darkness.We're gleeful just to have seen tornadoes, but Anton tosses cold water on the celebration as we heat sandwiches in a gas station microwave.
Power poles are sucked up out of the ground, all the steel wires are ripped off the metal fences, and the fences are blown down flat, leaving nothing but a pristine meadow.
It's really crazy."Rex Geyer and his family drive through the remains of Manchester with terror in their hearts. Those tanks would have crushed anyone taking refuge from the wind.Less than an hour before, Tim and Garsten had left three probes and Tinman in the path of the storm. Among the first on the scene, they check the bleak remains of another missing farmhouse, Harold Yost's home, but no one's there. In Manchester, home to only six people, it seems a miracle that no one died, since they all decided to ride out the storm. The building toppled over on him, but the storm quickly whisked it off into the sky, leaving him dazed but alive.But the turtle probes are there, and the tornado has passed directly over two of them.
Amazing!" shouts Carsten, leaping around the road.No one sleeps that night, and as word gets out to the tight-knit chase community, the Internet crackles with congratulations.
At first Carsten couldn't find Tinman, but the next day he tracks it 160 yards (146 meters) across the fields, where the wind has tumbled it end over end, leaving a trail of great gashes in the soil.
It sits poking out of the mud, its glass portholes smashed, looking like a piece of airline-accident debris.
The still cameras fired only a few frames before being destroyed, but those images are probably the closest ever taken of a tornado.
In the final hour he has looked deep into the eye of the beast.Meteorologists respond immediately.
Erik Rasmussen casts around on the Internet for other chasers who have photographed or videotaped the Manchester tornado and heads up to South Dakota.
Putting tapes together with Tim's measurements from the probes, he may be able to construct a computer visualization of the tornado in action. Rex struggles with insurance claims and leans on his extended family for help.The Manchester storm yields some of the most startling measurements ever obtained. One probe registers a drop in barometric pressure of 100 millibars, an astounding measurement that verifies theoretical calculations.



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