Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chasing mythology - 2

My next storm chasing mythology target is the often-repeated notion that storm chasing saves lives. Chasers rationalize their chasing in this way by claiming that they provide information about ongoing storms, including identifying when and where tornadoes are occurring. It may or may not be the case that an individual making such a claim actually takes the time to report what they're seeing in real time.

In any case, the fact is that it's only the National Weather Service (NWS) and civil authorities who can claim legitimately to save lives through the storm warnings they issue by using information that might (or might not) be provided by chasers. Chasing, per se, saves no lives, ever! In my experience, many chasers are too busy pursuing their hobby to be bothered with calling in their observations. In 1999, in a famous chaser convergence near Almena, KS, my wife and I were the only chasers amongst a multitude to call the NWS to report the development of a tornado. There were dozens of vehicles scurrying about in typical chaser convergence chaos, and no one apparently had called the NWS, even though a funnel cloud that would become a tornado was in progress! It was astonishing to me when we called the NWS to learn we had been the first to call!

The technology of chasing has made huge strides - now it's become possible for the NWS to follow the GPS locations of chasers and to call the chaser, rather than waiting for the chaser to call them. Live video streaming allows the NWS to see what some chasers see through their windshields. This is all well and good - it allows chasers the luxury of not having to bother with actively reporting what they see and to maintain the illusion that they're "contributing" information in this passive way. But it remains true that it's still not the chasers who are saving lives. That's the responsibility of the NWS and civil authorities (first responders, emergency managers, storm spotters, TV broadcasters, etc.) .

I know of no chasers who chase in order to save lives. Chasers chase because seeing storms is a passion, or because they want to become rich and/or famous people (drawing attention to themselves), or any of a host of other reasons, including science. Storm chasing is a basically selfish activity. Note that storm spotting can and does save lives, but spotting and chasing are very distinct activities! Spotters are volunteers serving their communities - chasers are simply pursuing their own interests.

Scientific storm chasers also like to use the "saving lives" card, arguing that their science will be put to use to increase warning lead times (an argument I've disputed here and here), or whatever. This argument is simply not valid - storm chasers working on a scientific project are also not chasing to save lives, although their scientific findings might someday be used successfully by someone who is responsible for saving lives. They're out there to do science, not to save lives. Their passion is for learning about the atmosphere. The new understanding they can derive from chasing might or might not have an impact on reducing storm-related fatalities. Life-saving isn't on their agenda when they go out on a chase.

Some storm chasers, myself included, have been involved in helping the NWS develop spotter training programs. I support this because I believe it's an important way for chasers to give something back to the society that supports the programs (like the NWS data) they use to intercept storms. In fact, I'm proud of having contributed to spotter training - but I make no claim that I saved lives by doing so. I give the credit for life-saving to the NWS and the civil authorities!!

The fact is that only the NWS and civil authorities save lives when tornadoes and severe storms threaten. Storm chasers are simply hoping to clean up their image by claiming that role for themselves. But no one has given them that responsibility (with the arguable exception of those chasers who chase for media broadcasters, a group that's been known to exceed their authority at times).

There is one way in which storm chasers might save lives - by stopping to render medical assistance to people injured by a storm. I know of no storm chaser who can say, however, that they've ever saved a victim's life. Perhaps a few such exist and I'm just unaware of their life-saving contributions. If so, I honor their unselfish actions. The number of lives saved via the direct first aid of storm chasers must be pretty small, though. Moreover, in order to save a life by this process, a storm chaser must stop chasing! In other words, it's not the chasing that has saved a life in such a case! The most such a chaser could say was that chasing brought him/her to a place where they could render life-saving aid. But saving a life wasn't on their agenda when they began the chase.


bc said...

Chuck, I beg to differ, but only on two very well-defined areas. First, chaser reports can (but not necessarily do) help warning forecasters' situation awareness, and in so, might make the difference between a life-saving warning and one where a warning is not warranted. The logic is somewhat convoluted, so please indulge me. Let's take for instance the strongly rotating but undercut supercell, one where tornadogenesis is very unlikely (we've all seen those, all too often). A warning forecaster, just looking at radar and what passes for surface data, might go ahead and pull the trigger. But if a chaser calls in to report a rotating wall cloud, the forecaster can then interrogate the chaser: where are you in relation to the wall cloud? Are you getting cold air outflow or warm inflow? Does it look like the front flank downdraft undercuts the wall cloud? The warning forecaster, now having some information that the storm is undercut, might just marry that information to the NSE and hold off on issuing a tornado warning. Why does this save lives? Too damn many tornado warnings might just desensitize the public, thereby putting them at risk when the warning is justified.

The second, albeit finer, point, is for those of us who chase and serve as warning forecasters/event coordinators from time to time. A colleague of ours in Norman once told me that chasers make the best warning forecasters, for they can synthesize their experiences with the data they're receiving in realtime. Chasing experiences, especially those busts we've all encountered, helps me in not only conceptualizing the NSE but also in the hot seat. A recent example hereabouts led us to hold off on issuing a tornado warning until outflow from downstream supercells came into play. Admittedly it's not a requirement to chase storms and handle warning responsibilities, but it does help me visualize what I'm perceiving in realtime.

Outside of those very narrow exceptions, however, you're right. Storm chasing, anymore, is not done as a public service or an individual quest for knowledge. There might be fewer than 300 chasers in the world who share your feelings. For the rest, it's done as an extreme sport, and for this reason I'm seriously considering hanging it up.

Chuck Doswell said...


Regarding your first point - a fine point indeed - but regardless of the presence or absence of chaser input, it's the NWS warning that can save lives.

Regarding your second point - I'm willing to grant that a chaser might make an excellent warning forecaster, but you can't do both at the same time. You save lives as a warning forecaster, not as a chaser.

Heidi Farrar said...


You say:

The fact is that only the NWS and civil authorities save lives when tornadoes and severe storms threaten.

To take things one step further, is it not the person heeding the warning who is in turn responsible for saving their own life? In following your logical pathway, it would seem reasonable that any praise for life-sustaining action should arrive squarely with the individual who has made what would be the right choice after considering all of the information available to them. As such, the storm spotter and storm chaser providing reports, along with the NWS employee and TV Meteorologist issuing and broadcasting warnings, would then serve as important links in the chain of information that would ultimately lead to an eventual storm victim's personal choice to take appropriate action -- this instead of the NWS and civil authorities serving as the final bastions of humanity. Obviously, this would exclude those rare cases when, prior to the arrival of a catastrophic tornado, some would-be hero has gone door-to-door and physically removed citizens from harm's way, striking the unconvinced over the head with clubs and dragging them to underground shelter as necessary. That sort of do-gooder would then ascend to the level of life-saver, for sure, and would perhaps even be glorified with a parade or picnic thrown in his or her honor...assuming there were no charges pending, of course.

Randy said...

Hey Chuck,
The NSR and spotternetwork are working hard to bridge the gaps and create a method for the chasers to be productive mobile spotters. I fully agree with you about the importance of spotting vs chasing and we have been working for years to create training and a system to make spotting a primary activity for many chasers. I believe we are slowly making progress.

Chuck Doswell said...


Extrapolation is always somewhat risky, but having said that, there's little doubt that in the end, people need to accept some level of responsibility for their own safety.

I never said that the NWS and civil authorities are the "final bastions of humanity" - those are your words. Chasing, per se, doesn't do anything to save lives. Some responsible chasers do in fact contribute to the system, of course. But if all chasers suddenly quit chasing, the integrated warning system would still be working effectively to save lives.


Yes, I acknowledge that chasing and spotting are not mutually exclusive, but spotting involves a leap of commitment that chasers generally aren't willing to make.

TJ said...

Chuck, I agree with what you said in your blog. I am a spotter for Collin County and I do believe that when i report severe conditions, that my reports contribute to saving lives.

People tend to lump storm chasing with storm spotting. Most chasers that I know are out there chasing. They would rather get that footage first, then worry about calling in or reporting. Recently, I learned from the NWS that during the Midlothian tornado on May 20th of this year, they received no phone calls from anyone reporting a tornado. They also noted that there were plenty of pictures and video of the tornado. If everyone is out chasing a storm or a tornado and they never call in what they are seeing, how can that be considered "saving lives"?

It's nice to know that a storm spotter or a chaser who calls in or reports is contributing their help in saving lives. Yes, they aren't directly saving lives but they are an important part of the system.

Chuck Doswell said...


Thanks. But when you say "... a chaser who calls in or reports is contributing their help in saving lives. Yes, they aren't directly saving lives but they are an important part of the system." - I would change that slightly to "...a chaser who calls in or reports is contributing their help in saving lives. Yes, they aren't directly saving lives but when they do call in a report they can be an important part of the system."

Shane Adams said...

In nearly 15 years of chasing, I know of only once when my report was responsible for saving lives.

On October 4, 1998 we called in the Lake Carl Blackwell/Stillwater tornado to KWTV in OKC. They were unaware of it, so I provided the details of location, est forward speed, and direction of movement, along with a description of how it appeared visually. They thanked me and hung up.

A few days later, on KWTV, they were interviewing a couple who lived near the lake. They had just set down to dinner, when they heard GE come over the air warning about a large tornado approaching Lake Carl Blackwell. The ran outside, saw the tornado coming towards them, and jumped in their cellar. Their trailer home was destroyed, but the couple survived with no injuries. They said if it wasn't for Gary England, they never would've known it was coming.

I agree it's the RESPONSIBILITY of the NWS to get the warnings out and in turn, save lives. But the fact is, the warning process, sometimes, is an assembly line, a portion of which at times, chasers ARE responsible for.

The NWS relies on radar, spotters, and any reports they it public, off-duty employees, motorists, or chasers. Each one of these groups share the act of saving lives, when warnings are received and actions taken.

So while I agree, politically, it's the NWS who is responsible, there are other parts of the warning machine who are equally responsible for the end result.

Chuck Doswell said...


See my comment, just above yours.

Anonymous said...

I agree Chuck. Scientific storm chasing is not driven by the aim of reducing the extent of damage and number of deaths as a result of hazardous weather events.

Instead perhaps scientific storm chasing is more analogous to the role of an automobile mechanic who enjoys the workings of the automobile's components. Sure, working on an exhaust might very well save the occupants from the potential of carbon monoxide poisoning, however to most mechanics its about understanding the problem and then how to go about repairing it.

Eric Weaver said...

If somebody is either pursuing scientific inquiry or is just having the time of their life watching severe weather, why would they feel a need to justify it at all? Those seem to be perfectly good reasons to chase storms to me.

It is sort of like those folks who justify buying a motorcycle because they save gas. MAYBE there is a reluctant wife to convince, but why not just admit that we ride them because riding is a great deal of fun?

Just be bold and proud of why you do things!

Scott Currens said...

It seems that you believe a person’s motivations make a big difference in what is ”life saving” and what is not. I don’t see your logic. How can storm spotting (presumably their reports) be life saving and storm chaser reports never be life saving? It seems to me that accurate, timely, reports are an important part of the warning process regardless of the motivating factors that put someone in the position to make the reports.

Chuck Doswell said...

Scott C ...

Yours is an interesting but inaccurate interpretation of what I'm saying. Spotters are an integral part of a process that has been created for the specific purpose of saving lives. I know of no chasers who chase only as part of a process serving to save lives. Do you know of any?

Chasing is a basically selfish activity - I'm not saying that makes chasing evil, but chasers are just not out there to save lives or accomplish other altruistic goals. Occasionally, as I've noted already, some fraction of chasers make the effort to report what they're seeing to someone who is actually engaged in a life-saving process (e.g., the NWS or to some spotting network). That's all well and good and can indeed be helpful on occasion, but it doesn't come close to justifying a broad-brush statement that "chasers save lives"! The reality is that a few chasers make an unsolicited contribution to saving lives from time to time. I've never denied that.

Your interpretation of my comments apparently is more black-and-white than they're intended to be. I have never excluded categorically the possibility that chasers can contribute to life-saving processes in a positive way. I wish more did so, of course. I also wish all chasers behaved responsibly ... but wishing doesn't make anything a reality. Most chasers probably behave more or less responsibly, but the exceptions make all of us look bad. When chasers do something helpful, such as reporting tornadoes to the integrated warning system, it reflects credit on those who do so, but says very little about chasers collectively. This situation is probably unfair, but no one can ever promise that life is always fair.

Chuck Doswell said...

An additional thought re Scott's comments ... upon additional reflection, I thought of one group ofchasers who do so at least nominally as part of a life-saving process: chasers hired by the broadcast media. In OKC, there are many chase teams deployed by the TV networks to supplement their weather coverage in threatening situations. We can argue about how qualified some of them are, and how responsibly they behave - some relatively well-known media chasrs in the OKC metro regularly break traffic laws and do other irresponsible actions - but they do serve (nominally) in a life-saving process.