June 8, 2005 — -- "It needs to go down the road just a little bit!"
On a dirt road in northwestern Iowa, Tim Samaras lugged a squat 80-pound pyramid -- right into the path of an oncoming tornado. Many people would think he's crazy, though he offered his own explanation: "I'd like to use the word 'passionate' rather than crazy."
"I'm a storm chaser," Samaras said. "I'm a lover of weather, and for me to be out there and witness Mother Nature in that state is just absolutely fantastic."
Samaras, a research engineer by profession, wanted to get the first pictures ever from inside a tornado. But he also wanted to live to tell about it.
Hence the pyramid -- a nearly circular disc, really, about the size of a car's tire but only a few inches high, with a ring of windows near the apex. Samaras and his colleagues gave it an almost-flat bottom, shaped a little like a suction cup. It was designed to keep the probe in place on the ground -- intact -- even if a funnel cloud passed right over it.
Inside the probe, Samaras mounted small digital video cameras. They pointed in all directions, including straight up, so that, no matter what a tornado did, they would be able to record every detail.
"We're trying to understand a little bit more about the lowest 30 feet of tornadoes," Samaras said, "which is basically where we live, where buildings are, vehicles and so forth -- that's the least understood."
The project, which was funded by the National Geographic Society, has attracted the interest of Harold Brooks, a tornado scientist at the Severe Storms Forecast Center in Norman, Okla., run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"I'm very impressed with Tim's work," Brooks said. "Knowing where and how the forces are distributed, and how big they are in different places, may tell us an awful lot about how to design structures to withstand a tornado better."
Last June, near Webb, Iowa, Samaras and his fellow storm chasers saw a funnel cloud coming straight at them.
They placed the probe as close to the storm's path as they could. Then they ran for safety.
The cameras show swirling clouds overhead, trees blowing over in the distance, rain spattering the lenses -- and the roiling, churning tornado getting closer and closer.
The edge of the funnel cloud passes right over the probe. The wind is more and more violent. But the cameras keep rolling.
"We were just all astounded," Samaras said. "We couldn't sleep that night. We knew that we'd gotten a hit that day in northwest Iowa."
Replaying the video in slow motion, Samaras calculated that just a foot off the ground, debris was being blown at close to 10 mph -- far faster than most researchers had ever guessed.
"The data that we can get out of the camera probes are things we just ... [have] never seen before," said Brooks, the NOAA researcher. "It's something very, very new."
Meanwhile, Samaras continues his quest. He was on the road in South Dakota today with his 80-pound probe, looking for new tornadoes.
As he lugged it back to his truck after its close encounter, he said, "It's amazing how light this becomes when you're full of adrenaline."