Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado

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Around dinner hour on June 24,the entire hamlet of Manchester, South Dakota—walls and rooftops, sheds and fences, TVs, refrigerators, and leftover casseroles—lifts from the earth and disappears into a dark, thick, half-mile-wide 0. The pieces whirl high in the twister's mile-an-hour kilometer-an-hour winds, like so much random debris swept clean from the landscape. A mile or so north of town year-old Rex Geyer pulls the curtains back from the window of an upstairs bedroom and watches Manchester disappear.

Rex stands frozen. The tornado seems to be standing still too, not moving one way or the other. It takes him a fearsome minute to realize what that means—that the deadly storm is coming straight for him. Just earlier, Rex had sat down to fried chicken with his wife, Lynette, who is eight months pregnant.

Rex's brother Dan, who lives up the road, charges into the house. As they flee, two cars hurtle down a nearby dirt road in the opposite direction—straight at the tornado. Tim Samaras, a year-old electronics engineer from Denver, and his storm-chasing partner, Pat Porter, are in a van that carries six probes, often called "turtles"—squat, pound kilogram metal disks that look like flying saucers.

Through embedded sensors, the probes can measure a tornado 's wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature. Samaras's mission, and his passion, is to plant them in the path of the funnel. 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 mm still cameras. Tinman, the team calls it, based on the character from The Wizard of Oz.

No one has ever filmed the inside of a tornado—where wind can chew asphalt off a road and drive wooden splinters into tree trunks. 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. Tim skids to a halt to make a drop. We don't have time!

The monster is plowing up ground only a hundred yards 91 meters away, and the inflow wind is Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado up as Tim leaps out just long enough to deposit a probe before scrambling back in.

Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado

As the chasers speed away, they can see debris roaring in above them: Nails, wire, two-by-fours Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado by in winds that will soon reach miles an hour kilometers an hour. See a map of the Tornado Alley region.

Moments later the cars stop again a short distance down the road. Carsten and Gene haul the pound kilogram Tinman from their car onto the roide and activate the cameras while Tim drops another turtle. Two so far. Good, good. But now the tornado is chasing them. They blast down the road once more, and Tim deploys a third probe. Tinman and two of the three probes take direct hits. The tornado reaches one probe a mere 80 seconds after Tim sets it in place.

But suddenly the fury is spent. The tornado changes shape, stretching out long and ropey before rolling limply to the side. And then it simply evaporates. Tornadoes are among Earth's most violent natural acts. 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 ram 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. It was a supercell that gave birth to the Manchester tornado.

Forty percent of all U. 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 kilometer-an-hour winds. An F5 is horrific. The Manchester tornado was an F4. Today's warning time for tornadoes—the time a family faced with catastrophe has to gather essentials and bolt for the basement or nearest storm shelter—averages 13 minutes.

Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado

Most warnings rely on the 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. Navy—the Spy-1 phased array radar—for meteorological use.

Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado

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. We cover more than 50, highway miles 80, kilometerslugging Tinman around faithfully. We hit severe weather that rattles our teeth and pits our cars with hailstones.

We witness skies of transcendent beauty. And we endure the gypsy life of the storm chaser—truck-stop motels, late-night Subway sandwiches, and dogged resolve. Mostly we tilt at windmills; we see only a few tornadoes. 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. From here we can reach nearly anywhere on the plains with a day's drive. For the first season,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.

Through numerical computer models, constantly flowing weather maps, and intuition, he can sit at home in his bathrobe and calculate where the best supercell will arrive each day by six o'clock p. On May 25 Erik points us to the Texas Panhandle, where conditions look right for spawning Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado supercell. 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 backlightwatch 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 motion picture Twisterstorm 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. We don't hide it.

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 it's not like going to, say, Niagara Falls, which stays put.

Tornadoes are unpredictable, and a wrong decision can be hazardous. I have seen tour buses with windows shattered from hail, the passengers shaken but exhilarated. Research scientists are out there forecasting and chasing too, of course—teams from meteorological departments at universities and from the NSSL in Oklahoma, where much of today's pioneering work is done.

But science of this kind is challenging, for tornadoes resist analysis, and creative computer models can take researchers only so far. To get a better handle on that question, research meteorologists Howard Bluestein, from the University of Oklahoma at Norman, and Joshua Wurman, from the Center for Severe Weather Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado in Boulder, in the hunt each spring. 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.

Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado

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 want to have readings from as many points as we can, and we need all these people to fill in the blanks. Amateur chasers may even play a role in an ambitious project planned for the spring ofwhen dozens of scientists will attempt to surround storms and gather data from every angle.

We reach Texas in time, but Erik's deated storm dissipates into a ragged line of squalls that runs off into the Gulf of Mexico. We caravan in the Texas Panhandle for days, Merle Haggard on the radio, tooling down the straightest ro in the world, chasing storms Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado only lease and don't deliver. Sometimes dinner is a bag of corn chips, some beef jerky, and a Coke. By the middle of June we give it up, leaving as a good year for those who live in Tornado Alley, but a total bust for us. The following spring,we carry our own technology instead of relying on nowcasters.

Tim has customized his white Dodge Caravan into an intimidating storm-busters vehicle. A domed television antenna sits on its roof. The van is like a submersible diving into the atmospheric sea. On the early morning of May 23, we're in a cheap motel room in Salina, Kansas, clutching foam coffee cups, pulling weather reports off the Internet. And now we have to make our move. It looks promising. A heavy wind has been unloading on the prairie, twisting the cottonwood leaves onto their pale backsides, leaving grain fields squirming. We head out with the skies overcast, like dirty fleece hanging off an old sheep.

Thunderstorms are raging to the south. We haul across the Oklahoma border and reach again into the Texas Panhandle. By we're in cattle country, where the towns are rawboned, as if the buildings had been scoured into packing crates by the prairie wind. We pull into Lipscomb, Texas, and a car full of local women rolls up. But we're late, and out of position. If we try to drive around the storm, we won't have enough daylight left to see it.

Want to get banged like a screendoor in a tornado

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