Compass Blog

Tornado Chase 2013 - Tracking A Monster

Kensington Tours' Explorer-in-Residence, George Kourounis, continues to send dispatches from his month long journey across the heartland of the U.S. as he criss-crosses the region known as "Tornado Alley". Here, storms can tower over twice the height of Mount Everest and concentrate all their energy on a single point where a tornado grinds up a farmer's field. George's 15 years of experience as a renowned storm chaser enables him to be at the right place at the right time to witness these jaw dropping forces of nature.

May 31, 2013 - Tracking A Monster

It was a day I will remember for the rest of my life, for so many reasons both exhilarating and tragic.

Naturally, there are inherent risks whenever you want to try and get close to a violent force of nature. These are calculated risks and a tremendous amount of knowledge, experience, technology and insight gained over the years has kept me and my team safe and sound through over a dozens tornado encounters.

May 31st looked like it was going to be a good day for storm chasing, a moderate risk had been issued by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, which included areas west of the Oklahoma City metro area. It was a relatively easy target today, given that all the forecast parameters pointed us in the same general area. We parked our caravan of 3 vehicles at a gas station in the town of Chickasha and waited, and waited, and waited.

The employees inside were starting to get nervous and twitchy. They'd seen plenty of storm chasers before, and they knew that when a bunch of us were waiting around in one place for a long time, that can only mean trouble later in the day.

It wasn't until close to 5:00pm that the first signs of towering cumulus clouds started to roil up nearby. It was hot and sticky, with a stiff wind coming from the southeast. Perfect tornado weather. It was time to get moving.

We all piled in and drove north towards the most vigorous of the updrafts which were now exploding into the sky like fists of clouds trying to reach into space. The radar screen started to light up. The echoes of the storms appearing as blobs on the screen, with our GPS location overlaid with roadmaps so that we could plot the best intercept course. The blobs on the screen grew and grew until it was clear that one storm looked to be the dominant cell. It was just to our north and growing fast.

Once underneath it, it didn't actually look all that impressive at first.

Lots of rain, some small hail, but there were other storms nearby, interfering with it. Their rain cooled air being ingested by my storm was like a poison to it, inhibiting its growth. It took some time but eventually, the supercell storm got into some better air & wind shear and that's when things began to improve. Dramatically and quickly.

It wasn't long before we spotted the telltale signs of rotation on our radar screen. We were on Interstate 40, part of historic Route 66, looking south when we spotted the first touchdown near the El Reno airport. It was distant and it was almost impossible for me to stop on the highway to get some photos. We dropped south and got closer. The circulation was increasing and the storm grew more complex. We thought we had a pretty good handle on what was going on, so we kept stair-stepping east and north to keep up with it, eventually taking us back onto the Interstate, heading east.

What happened next was something I've never seen before. Something NOBODY had ever seen before.

The tornado had strengthened tremendously and went from having a wispy, ragged look with multiple vortices dancing around each other, to something else - something that didn't even look like a tornado. It became firmly planted down on the ground and got big. Really, really big.

Through the rain curtains, all I could see was the left edge of it at first.

It was unclear if this was the tornado or just the base of the cloud deck under the thunderstorm. A few seconds later I saw blue explosions to the right. Power lines had come down, causing huge arc of electricity as they shorted out. It was then that I caught my first glimpse of the right side of the tornado and realized that this was something huge. I was immediately glad that we had positioned ourselves behind it and didn't have to worry about this beast coming towards us. I crept up slowly, keeping a watchful eye on the wind speed and direction as I stared at it in disbelief.

The entire base of the storm WAS the tornado!!

It was south of the highway and I knew that there were quite a few other storm chasers down there who might not be able to see it as well as I could from my vantage point, so I radioed to let them know to get out of the way.

Many of them thanked me later. After the storm, I spent too much time listening to stories of close calls from good friends.

We eventually lost sight of it in the rain and I stopped in my tracks, realizing that it was curving to the north and was about to cross the road directly ahead of us. Giving it a wide berth, we backed up and swung around, exiting the highway as soon as we could. The rest of the evening was spent fighting insane traffic, downed trees and power lines and even more areas of circulation that threatened to put down more tornadoes nearby. I've never been so glad when the day was finally over.

It wasn't until later that we found out the full scope and scale of what we'd just witnessed. The tornado received a rating of EF-5, the highest rating possible, just like the one that had ravaged the town of Moore, less that two weeks prior. A nearby mobile doppler radar research truck had measured the wind speed at 296 mph (476 km/h) in the tornado. This makes it one of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded, but it was the sheer size of it that was even more remarkable. At one point, it was 2.6 miles across (4.2 km)!! It's hard to wrap my head around the fact that I had been up close to the biggest tornado ever recorded.

As exciting as that was, the entire event took a tragic turn when we learned that 3 of our colleagues, storm chasers and severe weather researchers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young had been killed by the tornado. The news was shocking. Devastating. This was the first time since storm chasing began back in the 1950's that any storm chaser has been killed by the storm they were chasing. What made it even more surprising was that these guys were the best. Well seasoned, respected chasers who specialized in doing decades of severe weather research, helping the scientific community to better understand the processes that go on in these storms.

It appears that they were trying to deploy special instrumented probes in the path of the oncoming tornado to document its wind speed and barometric pressure. They had done this many times before, but this tornado was different. It expanded in size very rapidly and took an unexpected turn to the northeast as it accelerated its forward speed. There was no way they could have escaped in time. At 2.6 miles wide, there was simply no place for them to go and with a strength of EF-5, nowhere to hide.

We lost some great people. I knew Tim, but not very well. I always felt good when I saw him out in the field though, beacuse it usually meant that we were on the right storm. He was respected, loved, and will be missed by the entire weather community. They knew their research was risky, and they died doing what they loved, contributing to the understanding of these incredible forces of nature.

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George is a world renowned explorer, adventurer, storm chaser and television presenter who specializes in traveling the globe, photographing the most extreme forces of nature. His adventures have taken him to over 40 countries, on all seven continents, from the midst of hurricanes such as Sandy and Katrina, to tracking tornadoes in Oklahoma. He's been to the radioactive zone of Chernobyl, and the far reaches of the Arctic & Antarctica. He even got married on the crater's edge of an exploding South Pacific volcano.

His exploits have been seen in several hundred television appearances including: Discovery Channel, BBC, CNN, National Geographic Explorer, History Channel, The Weather Network, and his own TV series he "Angry Planet", which he hosted and co-created and has been broadcast in over 100 countries worldwide.

Some of his expeditions have included: Setting foot on a brand new volcanic island in Tonga that had recently erupted out of the sea. Swimming ashore due to rough waters, the ground was still hot to the touch; he became the first person to ever rig ropes across the Boiling Lake in Dominica and document it from above; in Indonesia, he measured ph levels on the world's largest lake of sulphuric acid by taking a small rubber raft out to the middle; with 15 years of tornado chasing and 17 hurricanes under his belt, he's also one of the most experienced storm chasers in the world.

George is a fellow of the Explorers Club and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. He was twice nominated for Gemini Awards for his work on Angry Planet and regularly speaks at events around the world, including 4 TEDx conferences. He resides with his wife in Toronto.

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