Is storm chasing unethical?

Eric Holthaus wrote an article for Slate arguing that storm chasing has become unethical. This article has drawn a lot of response from the meteorological community, and not all of the dialogue has been productive. Holthaus makes some good points, but he’s wrong in a few places, too. His biggest sin is painting with too wide a brush.

At the root of the issue is Mark Farnik posting a picture of a mortally wounded five-year-old girl. The girl was injured in a tornado that struck Pilger, Nebraska and succumbed to the injuries a short time later. To be perfectly clear, I have no problem with Farnik posting the picture, nor do I have a problem with him “profiting” off it. Photojournalism is not always pleasant, but it’s an important job. To suggest that such pictures can’t be shared or even taken is to do us a disservice. 19 years on, the picture of a firefighter holding Baylee Almon remains the single most iconic image from the Oklahoma City bombing.

None of this would have come up had Farnik not posted the following to Facebook: “I need some highly photogenic and destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially.” That’s a pretty awful statement. While I enjoy tornado video as much as anyone, I prefer them to occur over open fields. Nobody I know ever wishes for destruction, and I’d be loath to associate with anyone who did. This one sentence served as an entry point to condemn an entire hobby.

Let’s look at Holthaus’ points individually:

  1. Storm chasers are not saving lives. Some chasers make a point to report weather phenomena to the local NWS office immediately. Some chasers do not. Some will stop to render assistance when they come across damage and injuries. Some will not. In both cases, my own preference is for the former. Patrick Marsh, the Internet’s resident weather data expert, found no evidence that an increase in chasers has had any effect on the tornado fatalities. In any case, not saving lives is hardly a condemnation of an activity. Golf is not an inherently life-saving avocation, but I don’t see anyone arguing that it’s unethical.
  2. Chasing with the intent to profit… adds to the perverse incentive for more and more risky behavior. Some people act stupidly when money or five minutes of Internet fame are on the line. This is hardly unique to storm chasing. Those chasers who put themselves or others in danger are acting stupidly. The smart ones place a premium on safety. What’s more, the glee that chasers often express in viral videos is disrespectful to people who live there and may be adversely affected by the storm. Also true. The best videos are shot from a tripod and feature quiet chasers.
  3. A recent nationwide upgrade to the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar network has probably rendered storm chasers obsolete anyway. Bull. Dual-polarization radar does greatly aid the radar detection of debris, but ground truth is still critical. Radar cannot determine if a wall cloud is rotating. It cannot determine if a funnel cloud is forming. It cannot observe debris that does not exist (e.g. if a tornado is over a field). If you wait for a debris signature on radar, you’ve already lost. In a post to the wx-chase mailing list, NWS meteorologist Tanja Fransen made it very clear that spotters are not obsolete. To be clear, spotters and chasers are not the same thing, even if some people (yours truly, for example) engage in both activities.

The issue here is that in the age of social media, it’s easier for the bad eggs to stand out. It’s easy to find chasers behaving stupidly, sometimes they even get their own cable shows. The well-behaved chasers, by their very nature, tend to not be noticed. Eric Holthaus is welcome to not chase anymore, that’s his choice. I haven’t chased in several years, but that’s more due to family obligations than anything else. I have, and will continue to, chase with the safety of myself and others as the top priority.

Remembering Tim Samaras

I woke up this morning to learn that veteran tornado researcher and storm chaser Tim Samaras and two others were killed by a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma. I never knew Tim in person, but I had the pleasure of interacting with him on the wx-chase mailing list and on the Stormtrack forum. Tim was of the old breed of chasers: safety-conscious, focused, and a serious scientist. This makes his death all the more jarring; Tim Samaras is about the last person you’d expect to die in a tornado.

That’s why this is so upsetting for me. I’ve always held to the belief that chasers are safe so long as they’re not stupid. I don’t know what happened in those last minutes, but it’s safe to say Tim was not being stupid. Did he make a mistake? Did he lose situational awareness? Was this a completely unavoidable accident? I can’t answer any of these, which means I’m face-to-face with the lethality of my sometimes-hobby.

To my knowledge, Tim and his companions are the first people to die while actively chasing. The other deaths that I’m aware of were due to roadway accidents on the drive home. That nobody has been killed is a surprise in itself given some of the crazy antics of those who have taken up the hobby inspired by “Twister” or Discovery’s “Storm Chasers”.

Tim can no longer contribute to the scientific study of tornadoes. Perhaps his death will serve to remind us all that even the best are vulnerable.

Lightning photos added

On Monday evening, Angie and I went chasing unexpectedly.  While the storm produced some wind damage, I’ve been unable to find confirmation of a tornado (there was at least one real-time report, though).  We saw very little of interest, until the incredible light show afterward.  So I present to you a few boring cloud pictures, plus also the lightning:

http://weather.funnelfiasco.com/chase/21jun10

This is also kind of exciting because for the first time I’ve forgone the use of tables to layout the photos.  The result is that the page renders based on what your screen wants it to, not on what I demand it does.  This is supposedly a much less evil way to do things.  In the future, I’ll be converting some of the older pages to work this way as well.

Further, I’ve updated some of the pages to reflect new license information.  Instead of my custom written “you must have my permission” text, I’m now licensing content under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.  It’s simpler, more enforceable, and more in line with my own personal values.  There’s a blog post forthcoming where I muse upon licensing issues.  In the meantime, know that the content on FunnelFiasco.com is under whatever license it says it is. I’ll work on updating the license text on pages soon.  And maybe I should consider a more dynamic site (e.g. using PHP) so that I don’t have to keep making these changes on each. freaking. individual. page.

Chase results — 13 May 2009

So I’m still not sure if the long-term plans for my chase results are blog posts or static pages.  What I do know that my 13 May 2009 chase certainly doesn’t deserve anything more than a quick blog update.  This being my first chase in over three years, I was a little apprehensive, and I spent most of the morning looking for my GPS and the battery for the video camera.

From the day three outlook, central Illinois was marked with a moderate risk area.  By that morning, conditions were very ripe for a strong line of storms, with the possibility of some isolated cells in the late afternoon.  The big concern was the clouds that didn’t seem to want to leave the area after weaker storms had moved through that morning.

In the early afternoon, Angie and I left for our initial target of Bloomington, IL.  We figured it would be a little bit of a wait, so I made for the Panera on Veterans Parkway.  I love Panera for their bagels and their free wi-fi.  We sit there waiting and waiting for something to happen.  All that happens is that my laptop battery gets lower and lower.  I brought my power adapter in from the Jeep…and no electrons flowed.  After trying several different outlets, I came to the conclusion that my battery life was nearly at an end.

During the last few minutes of battery I had left, I kept an eye on the ILX radar.  An outflow boundary was moving east and I was hoping it would kick off some storms.  With the wind fields, it wouldn’t take much to get anything that formed to start rotating.  Right as the battery died, a few small cells starting popping up along a Peoria-Lincoln line.  Since I wouldn’t be able to use Streets and Trips anymore, we made a run to WalMart to get a DeLorme atlas.  Then we made a run to Borders to get the very last one they had.

Using my BlackBerry to get crude radar data, we followed Old Route 66 toward Pontiac.  This turned out to be a very good choice, as the best looking cell was heading northeast from Peoria.  After a few minutes, it got a severe thunderstorm warning.  As we drove, I noticed it looked very high-based.  After following it for a while, it looked crappy and high-based.  By the time we reached Dwight, it was game over.

So we drove back home, with the requisite stop at The Hardees In Paxton With Sticky Floors.  Despite the annoyance of a grunge bust, it was really nice to get out to central Illinois and chase again after more than three years.  I also found out that Angie makes a good navigator, although on the next trip we might try switching seats.

I also have to give a shout-out to Rain-X.  I heart Rain-X.

Also, my friend Drew managed to catch a tornado in Missouri.  He might even update his website (http://www.prairiestormmedia.com/) soon.

For more storm chasing results, see the Chase Results page on Funnel Fiasco Weather.