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Monday, June 3, 2013

Storm chasing is NOT an extreme sport!

Every spring we see the midwest get hammered with severe weather, and every spring we get treated to a fresh batch of videos depicting tornadoes in action and we see some incredible footage. The people that bring us the memorable videos are sometimes just everyday people who happen to be in the right place at the right time, while other times the videos are provided by storm chasers, a unique breed of animal that goes out on the roadways to look for the bad weather. 

Doppler on Wheels radar truck
There are many different kinds of storm chasers. Some are researchers, driving vehicles (like the doppler-on-wheels radar trucks) that search for tornadic weather to get up close with data collection methods for helping to better predict when and where tornadoes strike.

There are the spotters, such as ham radio operators who coordinate with local National Weather Service offices and/or TV/Radio stations in order to tell the public what's on the ground. Some chasers do it for the public service, while others are in it for photographic means, trying to capture the tornadoes on film or video in order to publish, or even sell the rights to news outlets, for fun and/or profit.

Then there are the "daredevils". The ones who see all the action on TV or on YouTube or even in theaters and wanting to get a piece of the action. The age of smartphones and camcorders have made many ordinary citizens amateur photographers and videographers and a lot of the "glamor" of storm chasing has turned rank amateurs into a risk, not just to themselves, but to the so-called "professionals" who are trying to do legitimate research and weather spotting.

I should know, because I used to chase storms, and I classified myself as a daredevil. Back in the early 90's I would go out and chase storms all across east Tennessee. This was before camcorders became affordable, before Twister, before cell phones, before the internet as we know it, and even before I became a ham. I was fascinated by weather (still am) and I just wanted to go out and see what it was like to encounter severe weather in the "safety" of my pickup truck. Yes, a pickup truck. I didn't think at the time about how dangerous it truly was, since we have hills and valleys, lots of trees, and the roads don't go North-South/East-West. I didn't know a damned thing about weather compared to what I know now, and I'm still considering myself a novice. I had no phone, no way to record, and no way to communicate what I was seeing to the rest of the world. And I put myself into some pretty scary situations.

After getting my ham ticket I started being the "roving reporter" on local repeaters. I didn't have spotter training, couldn't tell you what a wall cloud looked like, and I certainly didn't know when to quit while I was ahead. When I would check into a weather net as "stormchaser mobile", I can remember Rocky up at the National Weather Service office in Morristown openly sighing, as if to say "Aww geez, here we go again!".

But I got out of that habit. A couple of close calls too many, not to mention regular chastising by the ham operators at the NWS (and the meteorologists) directed me to stay off the highways and get behind the microphone of my ham radio and help the Weather Service by calling weather nets. I found that my calling a weather net was much more productive (and safer) than chasing. Although I still found myself behind the wheel every once in a while. Having kids broke me of that habit completely, however. I occasionally hear a ham out there chasing, and now I'm the one openly sighing and discouraging it whenever possible. Usually if I am mobile during severe weather, it's because I'm going to/from work.

El Reno, OK tornado 5/31/13
I've seen as many videos as possible of all the known tornadoes on film and video.  I owned several videos of tornadoes and had books and even a poster or two of them. I went and saw the movie Twister in the theater (and I hated it!) and started to wonder at what point would storm chasing begin to go "mainstream" and THE thing to do in order to get that dopamine thrill some adventure seekers crave.

I didn't have to wait long, as more and more chasers, inspired by movies like Twister and all the videos now turning up online and an the evening news, began chasing. Everywhere.

A few thousand dollars can get you on board.
People from all walks of life, from college kids to retirees began following severe storms all across Tornado Alley. Some were amateur radio operators with a weather interest, some college students studying meteorology, some were just fascinated with what they were seeing on TV and wanted to see it up close and personal. How could you not be tempted to chase? After all, we were seeing all kinds of tornadoes wreaking all kinds of havoc and almost all the videos were recorded from a safe distance or from a location where everyone recording survived the event. Then cell phones came with cameras, so pretty much anyone with a cell phone could record photos or video of tornadoes, so you didn't need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to get in on the action. With smartphone technology now you just need to have a car, a smartphone, and an idea of where to go to find the bad weather. Now, you don't need even that, just a few thousand dollars can get you a seat in a van and you can now take a tour with a group!

Now that pretty much anyone and everyone can chase, the roads are getting congested with storm chasers of all kinds. These additional chasers can congest roadways when residents are trying to flee the storms or emergency vehicles are trying to get to some people in need.

Last Friday's storms in Oklahoma and Missouri showed that tornadoes are still unpredictable and when even the so-called "experts" are put in harm's way, the novices can be in just as much danger, if not worse.

By now you've heard that a crew from the Weather Channel had their SUV caught in a tornado and it was tossed some 200 yards into a field after rolling over 6-7 times.

You can watch video of The Weather Channel's SUV getting tossed by the tornado here (or view the video below). You'll see the camera get tossed out of the vehicle and end up on its side, still recording, showing the SUV tumbling through a field several times. TWC meteorologist Mike Bettes and two photographers suffered some injuries. One of the photographers suffered broken bones.

As I was composing this I found out that one of the most respected (and conservative) chasers was killed, along with his son and a fellow crew member.

Tim Samaras WJ0G (right) with Carl Young of Twistex
Tim Samaras, callsign WJ0G, featured on Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers, his son Paul, and Twistex crewman Carl Young were killed when one of the many twisters during last Friday's outbreak struck their vehicle with them inside. Details are still sketchy as to what happened but it is believed the tornado they were tracking near El Reno, Oklahoma made an unexpected turn and came directly into their path.

Twistex was founded by Samaras and its purpose was to take research instruments and put them into the path of an approaching tornado, which would provide valuable data on the workings of a tornado. His death brings to the forefront the true dangers of these violent weather events. When respected meteorologists and researches can get injured, or even killed, imagine the danger to novice chasers and daredevils. Tornadoes don't discriminate when they go on their warpaths. And when it looks like we get a little bit ahead in our understanding of tornadoes, we find out all too abruptly that we still know very little about them. Tim was a pioneer in tornado research and has given a great deal in to learning more about them. His research has made predicting tornadoes more accurate and his research will be credited with saving lives for many years to come.

"Tornado Hunt 2013" SUV tossed 200 yards by tornado
I've had to change the title of this post 4 times to reflect the message I want to convey. When I look at the Weather Channel SUV, I see a car with an autowrap design that's makes it look like it's on a rock concert tour, with graphics you could slap on t-shirts and sell to paying fans when the "tour" comes into your town. Perhaps this type of business model enhances the perception that chasing tornadoes is "cool", like an extreme sport, enticing people to want to participate. Storm chasing shouldn't be an X-Games sport, nor should it be treated like one. It's a serious endeavor that can kill even the best of chasers. I hope and pray that we never hear of a van full of paying customers becoming the next fatalities.

My advice is simple, if you want to chase tornadoes, DON'T DO IT! There are enough people putting their lives on the line, and we don't need to congest the road with more. If you can't fight the urge, then go to school, get a degree in meteorology, team up with a respected team of researchers that chase responsibly, and you may be able to successfully chase tornadoes and live to tell the tale. But, as we have seen this past Friday, not even that is a guarantee you'll survive.