Megacomputers and the Quest to Understand Superstorms

November 4, 2017

Early in the evening of May 30, 2013, Cathy Finley and her partner, Bruce Lee, were driving along a back road near the small town of Guthrie, Oklahoma, 30 miles north of the state’s capital, when they spotted Tim Samaras and two members of his crew leaning against a white sedan and looking out over the low hills. Samaras, an old friend of the couple’s and one of the most famous storm chasers in the country, was in the area for the same reason as Finley and Lee—they were all severe-weather researchers, and a tornado was on its way.

The three friends had known each other for almost a decade, and in 2007 they helped found Twistex, a group dedicated to gathering atmospheric data to better understand ­tornadoes. Whenever a storm threatened to spin up a twister, the Twistex team would gas up the chase vehicles and assume familiar roles: Samaras would try to get as close as possible to the funnel to deploy his measurement probes, and Finley and Lee would slice through the storm in sedans outfitted with roof-mounted weather stations, gathering data that radar and weather balloons miss. A reputation for fearlessness landed the Twistex team a spot on a reality show called Storm Chasers, which featured their exploits for three seasons until Discovery Channel canceled the show in 2011 due to low ratings. Funding for Twistex dried up, and the members went their separate ways, meeting up whenever serious wind threatened to blow through the plains.

When they reunited on the back road near Guthrie, all three wanted nothing more than to take on the coming tornado together the way they used to. But with no source of cash to field an entire chasing team, this season was a no-go. Besides, the most recent forecasts indicated that the next day’s storm would reach peak intensity once it entered the Oklahoma City metro area during rush hour, and Finley and Lee had long since sworn off pursuing twisters down crowded streets—too dangerous, too hard to collect good data. They decided to pack up their gear and head home to Minnesota, leaving Samaras and crew to chase the storm.

During the long drive back the following day, Finley followed the storm on her laptop through radar tracking and live footage from spotters and news helicopters. Forecasters had been wrong about one key detail—the tornado let loose in wide-open farm country, about 25 miles west of the city. It measured about 2 1⁄2 miles across, easily the widest anyone had ever seen. Its peak wind velocities registered at least 290 mph and possibly much higher, about the fastest on record. And its main funnel rode the southern rim of its parent storm for nearly 40 minutes, moving back and forth along a wide, wobbling arc like a menacing grin. Knowing Samaras as well as she did, Finley guessed he was having the time of his life right in the thick of it.

Back at home in Minnesota, as Saturday turned to Sunday, the phone rang around 1 am, rousing Finley and Lee from a deep sleep. Lee, rangy and well-­muscled, slipped out of bed and padded across the house toward the kitchen. The phone went quiet, then rang again, and he answered it. It was a former student from the University of Northern Colorado, where he and Finley used to run the small meteorology department. His voice shaking, the man said he had it on good authority that three bodies found on a desolate Oklahoma back road belonged to Samaras, his 24-year-old son (and videographer) Paul, and meteorologist Carl Young.

Finley heard a curious tenor in Lee’s voice from the bedroom and came to his side. She’s a tall woman from western Minnesota farm country with almond eyes, and she and Lee were unsure whether they should grieve or wait for confirmation. Night gave way to day, and as the windows began to pale with the approach of dawn, they got a call from another former Twistex colleague confirming the worst.

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