Photograph by Tracie Alexis Seimon
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The El Reno tornado in 2013 was the widest recorded tornado in history. Anton Seimon wants to use slow-motion video and mapping to understand how storms inflict damage.
Photograph by Tracie Alexis Seimon
MagazineFrom the Field

Tracking a Tornado’s Damage From Every Angle

Scientist Anton Seimon is determined to solve the mysteries of the storm that killed his friends.

This story appears in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

ANTON SEIMON Atmospheric scientist

On May 31, 2013, the day the widest tornado ever recorded swept through central Oklahoma and killed 22 people, Anton Seimon was about three miles south. Several of the people killed were Seimon’s colleagues, including National Geographic Explorer Tim Samaras, whose vehicle was tumbled nearly a mile by the tornado’s 175-mile-an-hour gusts.

When the wind stopped, Seimon was left with his grief—and more questions than answers. Why did this storm wreak such havoc? He wanted to reconstruct the storm’s damage and see how it destroyed everything in its path, including Samaras’s truck. He began to acquire videos shot that day in hopes that, all together, they’d form a detailed portrait of the storm.

More than 125 videos later, the footage—when synchronized—shows the storm from nearly every angle. Most advances in tornado science usually center on questions of formation: how humans can predict a storm’s power and path. Seimon’s trove of information, which he published online and calls the Tornado Environment Display, may serve as a model to pursue a different question: How do high-speed air particles inflict damage?

He hopes that the answer, revealed frame by frame in the videos, will inspire engineering innovations, especially for construction in storm-prone areas. Studying how a roof is ripped off a trailer—the same way you’d study the mechanics of a slow-motion slam dunk—can help builders learn how to make roofs more secure. Repeatedly battered structures might be more strongly secured to the ground. “No one should die from a tornado in this day and age,” says Seimon. Although extreme storms are expected to grow in frequency and strength due to climate change, “we have the ability to know how to keep people safe.”