Motivations for storm chasing

Maybe I’m not the right person to write this post. Or maybe I would have been had I written it during a time when I was active. (It’s almost six years since the last time I went storm chasing, how much longer can I pretend that it’s a thing I do?) But here on Blog Fiasco, I get to make the rules, and Rule #1 is “Ben gets to write about whatever the hell he feels like writing about.”

At any rate, it seems that storm chasers have one thing in common: we/they really like to criticize the motivations of others. The most common target are the chasers who get in extremely close in order to get the perfect shot for TV. They take risks that most of us won’t (whether or not those risks are justified are left as an exercise for the reader). As a result, they’re dismissed as merely thrill-seekers by the “serious” chasers.

He’s in it for the money, not the science.

As my friend Amos said, “there’s no single explanation for chasing. It’s like trying to count all the reasons tourists visit Paris.” “Serious” chasers like to think they’re doing it for some altruistic reason. That could be scientific research, warning the public, or whatever. These things definitely happen, and they’re very good reasons for participating in an activity, but I doubt it’s what primarily motivates people.

Warning can be done by stationary (or nearly stationary) spotting, which also probably means you’ve developed some kind of relationship with the local authorities or NWS office. Some kinds of scientific research can only happen in situ, but that also requires a degree of discipline that many don’t want. Storm chasing is a very boring hobby that involves sitting on your butt in a car for hours on end in the hopes of seeing something interesting. It takes more than a sense of civic duty for most people.

I used to think I was doing it as a learning exercise or in order to serve the public. At some point I realized I was kidding myself. I chased (and hope to chase again) because I enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Can I figure out what the atmosphere is doing? Can I stay ahead of a dangerous beast while keeping myself safe? I’ll absolutely report severe weather I see, and I’ll share pictures with the NWS and any researchers, but that’s not the primary motivation. Now to get myself back out there…

The most dangerous part of storm chasing is the road

People who have never gone storm chasing don’t always believe me when I say it’s a very boring hobby. Hours of driving can lead to…steady rain. Or blue skies. Or any number of outcomes that were probably not worth the time and money invested. They see movies or “reality” TV shows and assume it’s constantly a dangerous, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.

Well it is dangerous, as we were reminded last week. Three chasers were killed in an automobile accident after one driver apparently ran a stop sign and hit another vehicle. I had never heard of the driver in question, so I can’t begin to speculate about his approach. Chances are he was a safe and conscientious driver most of the time. But it only takes one time. In that picture I saw that purports to be the fatal intersection, the stop sign is several feet away from the road. It’s easy to miss if something else grabs your attention.

Any chaser without a “close call” story is full of it (or just has a really bad memory). Distracted driving is dangerous, and chasing — especially near the storm — is an exercise in distracted driving. Maps, radar, radios, storm structure, cameras. All of these things compete for attention, but still you have to watch the road. Even with someone in the passenger seat, it can be hard to focus on the task at hand.

Truth be told, I’m surprised there haven’t been more deaths due to road accidents. The tornado isn’t the dangerous part.

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.