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.