Friday, April 15, 2011

Chasing has passed me by ...

This morning, in the wake of the news about deaths from tornadoes in Oklahoma and Arkansas, I found my FaceBook status messages filled with chasers crowing about their great chase days, shaky video showing chasers getting close to large tornadoes, and -- as an afterthought -- comments like "our thoughts and prayers are with CityXX."

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of my very first serious storm chase (on 18 April 1972). In the time that's passed since then, chasing has grown far beyond anything I could have imagined back then. Unfortunately, I may have had something to do with that growth, in my youthful ignorance of the consequences of extolling the virtues of chasing during interviews for crockumentaries about tornadoes and chasers. It's quite evident to me that chasing as a "sport" has passed by me, on its way to whatever destiny the future holds for it. I've become a gripy old curmudgeon, well removed from the "cutting edge" of storm chasing. I can't say I have any wish whatsoever to seek to keep up with what chasing has become, however.

I look at the videos people claim are fantastic on FB but I see almost no quality video. Most of it is the "edgy" sort of "reality video" that's all the rage these days. People cheering and having "stormgasms" while they bounce down some road on the way to a close encounter. In those close encounters, for the most part, the video sucks (by my standards). In fact, it's my opinion that seeing a tornado up close is not the most dramatic or exciting visual content. What's so spectacular about dust and debris filling the viewfinder as it flies by? I could get that in a microburst or gust front! No, the standard for video is now to get the "dramatic" shot -- OMG! We're in the $%#@ing tornado! We're in the tornado! We're in the tornado! -- even when the video shows clearly that they're not in the tornado. Clearly, this reflects the fact that for most chasers today, it's about them and not about the storms. Look at me! I'm doing something fantastic! Pay attention to me!! Such chasers are quite evidently immature and have little or no real appreciation for the atmospheric spectacle they're ostensibly seeking.

I've seen video from in tornadoes and -- no surprise here -- it shows little or nothing! Air filled with dust and debris in very dim light. Big whup! The desire to see inside a tornado may have its roots in some interviews with tornado survivors in the 1950s, whose accounts strike me today as likely to be pure fabrication, or at the very least, wildly exaggerated. Many of us have expected the view inside a tornado to be a disappointment, and what evidence exists seems to confirm this. It really has little point outside of those who are trying to gather scientific observations close to and within tornadoes. It's just a stunt, otherwise. But such stunts sell well in the media, of course. They make movies and "reality" series about pointless stunts, and there's fame and fortune to be had ...

A while ago, I posted some thoughts about my feelings after the 24 May 1973 Union City, Oklahoma tornado (see item #32 here). Doing the damage survey brought home the reality that tornadoes do devastating things to people. This feeling was reinforced after the 03 May 1999 tornadoes. If I'm going to be excited about seeing these, I had to come to terms with this aspect of tornado reality. Whatever excitement I feel about seeing a tornado needs to be kept to myself and never given voice in any medium where tornado victims might be present. Stormgasms on video aired publicly sullies the image of all storm chasers, reinforcing the impression that all chasers are thoughtless idiots. Come to think of it, this impression is apparently in the process of becoming more and more representative!

My feelings as an atheist are that prayers have essentially zero substance and can't be shown to have any effect. Offering your prayers for tornado victims is to offer them nothing! If you can't do anything more meaningful than offer prayers, I'd rather you kept your mouth shut. I suppose it amounts to an expression of sympathy, and if taken as that, it nevertheless remains valueless for the victims. Empathy (i.e., knowing how someone feels because you've experienced what they've experienced) is more meaningful, and might lead someone to do something more substantive than offer your "thoughts and prayers". Most chasers have not experienced the devastation brought about by a tornado, and so are incapable of empathy. I detest it when infantile chasers are bragging about their exciting chase day and then throw away a "thoughts and prayers" comment at the end of their exultation over seeing devastating storms. A statement of this sort at the end of a stormgasm in a public medium like FB or TV rings hollow and hypocritical. Chasers need to think this one through quite a bit more thoroughly.

Nowadays, some chasers attempt to get involved in search and rescue efforts after tornadoes pass through towns. If someone is injured and you're right there, by all means do whatever you can to help. But going into tornado-damaged areas to "help" is misguided. Most chasers are ill-equipped (both materially and in terms of training) to be of much assistance to first responders, so it's likely that those who do this are only going to get in the way of professionals (i.e., first responders) and are likely to cause more harm than good. Further, these amateurs may be injured themselves -- there's considerable danger in walking through piles of tornado debris, especially for untrained, ill-equipped folks -- thereby creating more work for the professionals. Chasers doing this may believe they're helping, but it's unlikely that they can be of much help. Think it through, people. Stay out of tornado damage tracks and let the professionals do their job. Personally, I think a lot of this is motivated by guilt feelings after a stormgasm, but whatever the motivation, I think it's an inappropriate response.

Yep -- chasing has passed me by -- and I pulled over and let it do so.


Anonymous said...

Not being a sycophant here, but, I agree with all you said and think you said it well.

Knowing the high quality of your photographs and videos for many years, I've often wondered what you thought of the way most storm chasers currently shoot their vids and photos..........shaky cam and poorly framed shots.

Have you ever noticed that a very large percentage of stormchaser vids and photos are poorly framed...placing the horizon too high and thereby ignoring spectacular, interesting, and impressive cloud formations and cloud movements that could have been seen if the camera had been aimed higher.

One very famous storm chaser group is notorious for this. I applaud them for getting to the storm, but they waste most of their opportunities because of poor camera work. Their videos are quite annoying and I avoid them now.

Another famous storm chaser group made it a point in their TV special to mock those chasers that pursue the distant shots . If they think it makes them more of a man to get the close shot....fine...but, they need to STFU about my preference to enjoy the whole storm rather than just a debris cloud.

As you said, Chuck, the debris cloud shot can be imitated quite well by a microburt or a gust front..........or , I would add, even a large dust devil.

I realize that there may be a valid scientific reason for shooting quality "tripod-based" footage of a debris cloud.

I ,also, realize that there may be a time, place, or reason for focusing the shot on the foreground with the storm in the background. But, that kind of shot seems to be very common now........perhaps even the norm with most chasers.

Maybe my interpretation of quality vids and photos is erroneous or "old-fashioned". If it is truly erroneous, I'm willing to correct it. If it is merely "old-fashioned" and not "trendy or cool" according to the "attention whores", then I'll continue to enjoy it until the day I die.

A quality wide-angle shot of the parent storm with it's tornado taken from an appropriate distance cannot be beat, in my opinion.

The appropriate distance would be far enough away to capture the large-scale grandeur of the storm, but, close enough to capture important details. And, of course, the foreground should occupy 15% or less of the picture or vid.

The appropriate distance, of course, would vary from storm to storm according to storm structure, visibility, and other cloudiness.

Also,if one pursued those kinds of shots, they would avoid much, if not all, of the much dreaded chaser convergence.

Well, Chuck, I appreciated your blog entry. I have always appreciated your high standards in photography and videography.

No sycophancy intended here...just stating the facts.

Also, thanks for the chance to "rant" on your blog. :)

Scott said...

Our relative affluence, access to the latest low cost technology (camcorders, etc), access to low cost energy, and a decent infrastructure, plays a significant role in the availability of chasers and tornado video in my opinion. But those days are coming to an end.

===== Roger ===== said...

Scott's on the mark. Chasing is about to get much more expensive.

However, I'm not convinced even the end of cheap gasoline is going to thin the herds much, inasmuch as a nontrivial component of the crowds are either 1) locals not as burdened by high fuel use, or 2) the most die-hard obsessives who would sell their last possessions (in addition to "XTREME INSANE CHAZER" video), and go five figures in hock shamelessly, for gas and vehicle money to chase.

Adding to that, one need not be a meteorologist, or even have much understanding of storm behavior anymore, to find tornadic supercells with some consistency. That's the biggest change from the 1980s to now. From reliable SPC outlooks that highlight areas of potential days out, and discuss general timing on days 2 and 1, to watches and MCDs that focus the area on the mesoscale time scale, to public chaser discussion boards that openly share experienced chasers' thinking on the "best" upcoming areas, useful insight is slathered upon the meteorologically illiterate (or depending on your perspective, parasitically consumed by non-contributors of meaningful thought) at a quality good enough to direct them to successful tornado intercepts. Any drooling moron can find a tornado when spoon-fed enough of others' thinking.

I still argue that a solid understanding of storm-morphology concepts will help conscientious chasers to avoid trouble on many occasions; but it appears that more and more who call themselves "storm chasers" actually *seek* trouble, at least in the form of disturbingly close proximity to tornadoes.

Finally, I agree with Chuck about the horrible quality of most of the tornado video online. Whatever happened to the tripod? Last I saw, tripods still are being manufactured. If you're hellbent to shoot "XTREME INSANE" storm video, whether or not you give a crap about anything least use a tripod, beanbag, or something else to make it steady!

Kenny Blumenfeld said...

I started chasing in the early 90s, so it's not as if I'm a pioneer. But I definitely sensed that the internet in general, and perhaps 'Twister,' brought about one increase in chaser numbers in the mid-late 1990s; the mobile data revolution, however, brought about a much bigger one.

I remember the 2003 season because my first son had just been born, and so I *happily* sat out almost every chase opportunity. That year, chasers with GPS-radar overlays and almost no prior results were getting big tornadoes, and lots of them. On the few local chases I did make, I was still using my atlas and best guesses. I struggled the old-fashioned way, and was happy to see a few rotating wall clouds. The new chasers saw tornadoes--often many--on those same days. Chasing had become comparatively easy, and the game has now changed: if you don't see a tornado, it's a bad chase. Remember when going 1-for-10 was pretty good?

I think a lot of chasers who do it for deeply personal reasons and would like the experience to be a bit more "private," or at least meaningful, feel as you do, Chuck. Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Chasing is dead, at least as we knew it. It's damn near impossible for me to enjoy it anymore, and it's not because of the meds :). It's being surrounded by the Weed Trimmers and yellow-twirlie shit suckers of the chasing universe that bleed the connection between sky and man white. Used to be a time when skills, experience, knowledge, intuition, and just plain dumb luck were needed. Now, all you need is a laptop and disposable income.

Maybe the whordes will thin out some once gas hits $6.00 a gallon or when the choice becomes not one of which target area to take but rather which target to eat. If we as a society have become so shallow that our value is measured in the number of messy stormgasms we shoot onto our camcorders, then game over, man. Time to head for the western slopes and ride this clusterfuck out.

Justin Reid said...

As a 20 year old met student who is interested in research and storm chasing, I agree with most of this post. More and more it seems like "look at me and my awesome team we are what storm chasing is all about!" I find this extreme arrogance nauseating and have unfortunately been on chases where this aloofness actually causes missed intercept opportunities. It gives me a migraine, especially when I miss good weather.

I will have to agree to disagree about the religion point (unless it's a plastic gesture), however chasers should get out of the way of first responders if they aren't EMT trained in some way or if they're a firefighter.

Storm chasing, it may seem to and older guy such as yourself, has not passed me by, but more and more I find myself wanting to be a solo storm chaser to avoid the aforementioned annoyances. I do find good in new technologies, such as Gibson Ridge, and in today's storm chasing. But these "movers and shakers" in chasing distract me from the beauty of the heavens and that isn't what storm chasing is all about.

Have a good day,
Justin Reid

Chuck Doswell said...

BC ... I obviously understand your point of view. But I refuse to allow the practices of other chasers to influence what I do and how I do it. If I let them take it away from me, then I concede the field. Instead, I will continue to pursue the dream I had when I started.

Justin .. no "plastic gestures" on my part, ever! It seems pretty obvious that storm chasing means different things to different people. For me, it's been a wonderful adventure tied to my emotional attachment to the grandeur of the natural world. As for the others -- I couldn't care less.

Kenny Blumenfeld said...


Prior experience might help bring out one's empathic capacities, but it is not a requirement for empathy. Empathy's chief requirement is 100% sincerity, something I think you will agree is utterly lacking from most "thoughts and prayers" type statements.

For people who are genuinely spiritual and religious, offering prayers to someone can be a deeply meaningful gesture. It might not have a tangible outcome, but at least those people are being sincere: they are putting forth a personal effort to do something they believe is "good." And I'm certain there are living victims of tornadoes who find tremendous value in random people praying for them. But how common is that people actually do that?

My problem with "thoughts and prayers" claims is that, first, it doesn't really take any effort at all to think about something, so who cares? Thoughts come easy.

Second, if you are claiming your prayers are with something, doesn't that mean that you have actually prayed about it (in whatever manner)? For some reason, I have a hard time believing that everyone who makes those statements is actually praying. If they're not, then their words are not just meaningless, as you say, but they're dishonest to boot!

Chuck Doswell said...


You may be correct in a formal sense regarding what it takes to feel empathy ... but I maintain that if you've not experienced a tornado's devastation firsthand, you simply can't put imagine how it feels. I've walked tornado damage tracks and I come away from that with the realization that I couldn't grasp how this would affect me. See: