Capturing Lightning: Our Final Interview with Fallen Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
6/3/2013 8:26:16 AM

This article was written in the spring of 2012 following an interview with storm chaser Tim Samaras. Samaras was killed chasing a tornado in Oklahoma on May 31. He dedicated his life's work to understanding weather phenomena, aiming to have his findings educate people about weather in a way that could save their lives.

Pictures for this article are from AccuWeather partner National Geographic. This is their official statement about the loss of Samaras:

"We were shocked and deeply saddened by the news that longtime National Geographic grantee Tim Samaras was killed in a tornado in Oklahoma on Friday, along with Tim's son Paul and their colleague Carl Young. Tim was a courageous and brilliant scientist who fearlessly pursued tornadoes and lightning in the field in an effort to better understand these phenomena. The National Geographic Society made 18 grants to Tim for research over the years for field work like he was doing in Oklahoma at the time of his death, and he was one of our 2005 Emerging Explorers. Tim's research included creation of a special probe he would place in the path of a twister to measure data from inside the tornado; his pioneering work on lightning was featured in the August 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine. Though we sometimes take it for granted, Tim's death is a stark reminder of the risks encountered regularly by the men and women who work for us. This is an enormous loss for his family, his wide circle of friends and colleagues and National Geographic."

AccuWeather's Senior Vice President of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and fellow storm chaser Mike Smith states: "In today's society, the description, 'he was a fine man' is heard all too infrequently. Tim was an innovative scientist that provided valuable data about tornadoes and lightning. We are all shocked at his passing and he will be greatly missed."


A few years ago, world-renowned storm chaser and storm photographer Tim Samaras set out to explore a little-understood subject: lightning. Samaras, whose weather inventions and experiments often propel him into "never-been-done-before" territory, is trying to analyze and better understand the physics of lightning.

While many photographs of lightning have been taken, no one has ever captured the exact moment that lightning has formed, or precisely when it first hits the ground. Samaras intends to change that. Equipped with a mobile lightning research lab and a specially modified old Cold War era camera capable of capturing 1.4 million frames per second, he sets out to chase thunderstorms in the hopes of being the first to photograph events that can help us to better understand how lightning works.

Guided by the laptop weather map reflected in his window, Tim Samaras rushes to catch up to a dying thunderstorm. He hopes to be the first to photograph the split-second event that triggers a lightning strike. Photo © Carsten Peter

Though often seen, lightning is still one of, if not the, least understood of weather phenomena. The speed with which strikes come and go, coupled with the unpredictability of exactly when one will start, makes them incredibly difficult to observe and study. Difficult, but not impossible.

Samaras hopes that his work to better understand lightning can help keep people safe. In the United States alone, lightning accounts for an average of 54 deaths per year, with many more survivors of lightning strikes facing severe injuries, some of them permanent.

In order to stay safe while filming storms, Samaras is making changes to how his project operates. Now, he tows a trailer with all of his data equipment, the electric field monitors, for example, and cameras in a trailer between a truck. This requires him to find a place to pull over while he's storm chasing to go into the trailer, a practice he readily admits he doesn't feel comfortable with.

Since the safest place to be during a thunderstorm (besides a fully enclosed building) is inside a secure vehicle, Samaras is in danger every time he leaves his truck to get into his trailer. Because he understands the severity of his subject matter, he doesn't like to take that risk. So he's revamping his research lab, converting it from a towed trailer into a vehicle he can drive and also work in. This way, he can stop whenever he wants and immediately set to work without risking the danger of being out in the open during an electrical storm.

As he waits for a wave of thunderstorms to form along Colorado's Front Range, Samaras readies the 1,600-pound camera he calls the Kahuna. Photo © Carsten Peter

Severe weather has always fascinated Samaras since his childhood. It's not just lightning--he has studied and made ground-breaking advances in the way we study thunderstorms and tornadoes. He designed equipment that allowed him to measure the lowest pressure drop in a tornado ever recorded.

"I've worked hard," Samaras said as he discussed his draw to severe weather. "I've been able to design my career around studying thunderstorms."

With over 20 years of storm chasing experience, he's still trying to find new ways to explore the never-before captured. Along with his efforts to photograph the way lightning forms and what it does when it first strikes the ground, he's also trying to better understand another rare weather phenomena- sprites. Sprites are bright red flashes of electrical discharge that occur in the sky when a positive lightning strike makes contact with the ground from the clouds.

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While his research lab is mobile, something crucial for his project as he is able to pick up and move to any storm rather than sit and wait for a storm to come to him, he also works with remote stations across the Southwest. His hope is that they will be able to capture the sprite in the clouds at the same moment he is capturing the lightning strike that caused it, something else that has never been done before.

Back on the highway with the Kahuna in tow, Samaras hunts for the elusive shot. This summer he's on the chase again, with new, nimbler equipment. Photo © Carsten Peter

Samaras focuses his work on the monsoon season of the American Southwest. Driving for 15,000 to 20,000 miles throughout the course of the season, he's able to explore the many thunderstorms and lightning strikes that take place. The storms move slower with a weak flow and are visible at greater distances, giving him the opportunity to try and capture the numerous lightning strikes that go off.

He recalls one late-night storm in northeastern New Mexico, where the lightning flashes were so bright and so frequent (5-10 per second) in an otherwise completely dark and empty landscape, that he was able to sit outside and read a magazine without trouble.

Now Samaras is getting ready to spend a month and a half in the field working on becoming the first to photograph several different aspects of lightning, starting in early August.

"Seeing these incredible displays of nature, you get hooked on it," Samaras said. "You want to be out there all the time."

All photographs for this article are from the August edition of National Geographic magazine. Cover image courtesy of National Geographic.

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