Thursday, January 26, 2012

My love affair with the Great Plains

When I began storm chasing, I was obsessed with seeing tornadic storms.  As it turned out, I wasn't often successful at seeing a tornado.  Therefore, I had two simple choices:  give up storm chasing, or persist in the effort.  Giving up was not an option.  No matter what the outcome, I was going to be on the Great Plains every spring, with the purpose of chasing storms in hopes of seeing tornadoes.  It still is not clear to me why I had this passion, but what was very evident was that my success or failure on any given chase day was not important.  I felt a compulsion that simply couldn't be denied.  Failure couldn't discourage me.

What few successes I had in those early years (beginning in 1972) made it obvious that the reality of storms far exceeded my dreams!  The few successes I had in pursuing my goal to see tornadic storms far outweighed my frustrations over not seeing such on most chase days.  If this was the price of success, then I was more than willing to pay that price!  Failure became both my constant companion and an incentive to succeed.  The rest is history, now.  But what's more important even than those occasional successes is what happened in the process of not giving up in the face of frequent failure.

Storm chasing in the nominal peak of the storm chase "season" puts me on the Great Plains.  And given the likely failure of my hopes to see a tornadic storm on most chase days, this meant that I had a lot of days when I was not going to see a tornado.  If storm chasing was only about seeing tornadoes, this was not going to be a process that rewarded me frequently!  With the prospect of a lot of days when I was going to "fail" to see a tornado, I was faced with the inevitability of frequent failure.  What was I going to do with that time when I did not see a tornadic storm?

Eventually, something else began to intrude in my consciousness:  there was more to the experience than tornadic storms!  I found that by being immersed in the Great Plains, something wonderful began to happen: I was falling in love with the place!  Upon my arrival in Oklahoma for graduate school in the late 1960s, I had the odd experience of feeling "at home" in a place where I'd never lived.  Somehow, it felt as if I'd arrived "home" in a place that had never been my home.  The sights, the sounds, the smells, the "feel" of the place made it evident to me that I never wanted to be separated from it again.   To this day, I can't explain that.  I can only bow to the inevitable:  I love it here!

The powerful storms of the Great Plains are an important part of the region's attraction to me - but it's become far more than just the storms.  It includes the people of the Great Plains, the history of the place, the oceans of emptiness, the infinite skies, the sensory experiences of being there - the total experience has become what keeps me here.

For me, a storm chase involves far more than just the potential for seeing a tornadic storm.  The chance to be on the Great Plains is an opportunity to experience something special in its own right.  If that experience includes a tornadic storm, so much the better, but it's become important to me just to be there.  The chance to see a tornadic storm adds another layer of significance to the experience, but it's no longer necessary to me.

Thus, it concerns me that the plains are under threat from those who would exploit them for monetary gain.  The Great Plains are far more than simply a dumping ground, or some sort of cash cow that can be exploited for monetary gain.  I wasn't an "environmentalist" before I became a storm chaser, but I now have become one, arguing that the plains have their own beauty and value that needs to be preserved, not destroyed for the sake of profit.  They have a beauty that may not meet the eye so aggressively as the beauty of the mountains or the ocean, but they are beautiful, nonetheless.  They're no more deserving of destruction in the name of profit than the Rocky Mountains, the national wetlands, or the coastal zones.  Unfortunately, champions for the Great Plains are few.

The economic viability of the Plains is declining rapidly.  Much of the land is absentee-owned now; the owners want to make their investments pay, without regard for the damage to the ecosystems this might cause.  The small towns that have characterized the plains are dying, and so the people who characterize the best of American human values are being squeezed out by the economics.  Corporate owners care little or nothing for the Plains, per se.  Only profits matter to them.  Anything, no matter how unsustainable it might be, that creates short-term profit is acceptable.  And the small towns increasingly have only empty storefronts and abandoned farm homes to show for a once-thriving local agricultural economy.

My chase images necessarily merge the storms with the environment in which they occur.  The two are inseparable.  If you like severe storms, you must also champion the Great Plains!  To appreciate the Great Plains, you have to slow down and feel in your soul the pulse of the land.  If you can't or won't feel that pulse, then I feel sorry for you. And you don't truly appreciate severe weather.

What to do with chaser images?

I've had this conversation with several veteran chasers, and it's a vexing dilemma.  The passage of time means that some veteran storm chasers soon will be passing on (dying).  A few chasers have died already and the issue of what to do with their images remains problematic.  The question arises:  what can be done to preserve the legacy of their chasing?  There's no central  place to save the still and video imagery from their many years of chasing.  Part of the problem is that each veteran chaser may have a different wish for their imagery: they may see it as a legacy for their families, or as a source of educational material, or as a collection of commercially valuable photos/video.  Our personal wishes surely would be relevant, but - just what do we want to see happen with regard to our imagery?

Speaking only for myself, my imagery formally belongs to the corporation I formed and, as such, could be an asset that I pass on to my family to do with as they wish.  Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure the most they could do with it would be to try to sell it for whatever they might be able to get for it.  How much might a collection of still and video images of storms (and other subjects) be worth?  I have no idea, but I'm guessing my family would have no idea of the value of my imagery, or how to obtain a reasonable price for the legacy I would leave.  Fact is, I don't know myself!  It might be a large value or it might be worth little or nothing.  Families are unlikely to know what the worth and significance of chase imagery is.  It's just "stuff" we've left behind.

The challenge I see is this:  the real value of these images likely would be associated with the context in which the images were obtained.  Some are simply cloud photographs, some represent documentation of important severe weather events, some are just interesting imagery I captured during my long career of storm chasing (40 years as of 2012).  It would be nice to have them sorted in some systematic way, but the best I can do now is to identify them by date.  It would be great to have some sort of narrative to associate with them, but to do so would be an enormous task, and my memory of them is fading with each passing year.

It might be good to have some sort of central collection point where veteran chasers could deposit their imagery in an archive.  The cost of such a "Museum of Storm Chasing" could become large.  My imagery includes film, video, and digital content.  The digital content alone, which represents only a fraction of the total, occupies almost a terabyte of storage.  The 35 mm and medium format film transparencies have mostly not been scanned into digital form.  Film must be stored in an appropriate environment and even then it deteriorates with time.  Images stored on digital media become unreadable as those media become obsolete, and they also deteriorate with time.  We have no digital media that can outlast properly stored film images right now.   Digital media are changing constantly, so images would need to be transferred to new media as the technology changes.

I'd guess I have at least another terabyte of uscanned images that, and it's likely that I actually have  several times that.  I have neither the time nor the inclination to convert all my imagery to digital format.  Let's just say for the sake of argument that I have 5 terabytes of imagery - I'm just guessing about that of course.  With the cost of digital storage devices, that's not a lot of expense these days, but organizing and managing such a database would not be a trivial, inexpensive exercise! 

If we consider the pioneers of storm chasing - Al Moller, Dave Hoadley, Gene Moore, Jim Leonard Tim Marshall, and so on - to say nothing of more recent chasers - Roger Hill, Bill Reid, Charles Edwards, and so on - this likely represents many, many terabytes of material.  What's going to happen to all of that amazing imagery as these chasers pass on?  Will it be lost or preserved as an important legacy?  I wish I knew. 

This blog isn't going to offer a solution, unfortunately.  The best I can do is open up the topic for discussion.  We all need to think about this and ask ourselves what we would like to see happen to our personal legacies of storm chasing imagery.  Do we want a central archive?  Is that even realistic?  What about commercial uses for our images?  What about scientific and/or educational uses?  Do we want them rat-holed away in some dusty archive, or do we want them actively marketed for commercial use, or what?  I just don't know.  I'm wide open to suggestions.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A passion for facts?

Of late, I've run into a lot of what I consider to be either outright factual errors, or misinterpretations of the facts.  Facts are the foundation upon which scientists base their work;  they are the observations and other evidence that provide the basis for a scientific interpretation.  Hopefully, the facts behind such an interpretation don't include errors of one sort or another.  Many different sources for errors are possible and it's widely understood in science that our facts may not be so unshakable as we hope.  The possibility of factual errors needs to be recognized in any scientific work, and efforts expended to reduce the chances for such errors to creep into the facts we use as evidence for or against our hypotheses.

We've recently seen an example of journalistic factual errors with regards to the tornadoes in Alabama - it was reported by Diane Sawyer on ABC's World News Tonight that the tornadoes "struck without warning" when the fact is that there were excellent warnings for the tornadoes, at least in terms of the current state of the science.  And information included in the story recommended that the viewers consider taking advantage of a FEMA service that, in fact, doesn't exist!  Nothing was said about weather radios and other means of obtaining weather information that people should be using to keep themselves up to date with developing hazardous weather - facts that would have been of service to the public.  Saying "It struck without warning!" is an outright factual error in this case, and no responsible journalist should ever make such an error.  But it seems we've come to accept, for the most part, that journalistic standards in the USA have deteriorated substantially.  Fact-checking has become optional, in the haste to get the story out.  Journalists should have a deep-seated passion for facts, just as scientists should, but - fact is, most journalists and even some scientists seem unconcerned about factual errors anymore.

Even if you have your facts correct, unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily mean that your interpretation of them is correct.  You may have overlooked other, mitigating facts (intentionally or otherwise) that would obviate your hypothesis, or reduce the probability that it's a correct interpretation.  In my experience with journalists these days, many of them are not only unconcerned about facts - they've also made up their minds before their research is even fairly begun.  The "story" is already written, and they're simply seeking confirmation of their story during their "research" into the story.  They have an "angle" on the story that represents a powerful bias when they should be as unbiased as is humanly  possible.  Journalists should let the facts speak for themselves, rather than imposing their will on the facts.  This is just as wrong as it is for scientists who are busy trying to confirm their interpretations, when in fact, they should be trying instead as hard as they can to refute their interpretations!  Scientists should pursue vigorously any avenue by which their ideas could be refuted, without having to be told not to overlook such things!  Anyone can overlook something, but we should try as hard as we can not to do so.  We scientists tend to be fond of our own ideas and not so fond of the ideas of our colleagues.  That is, we tend to have a "confirmation bias" - we want to accept facts that confirm our ideas and to explain away facts that refute them.  Only by being aware of this tendency and seeking actively to overcome it can good science be done.  The same can be said for journalists, who should make a professional re-commitment to fact-checking.

Confirmation bias is rampant in the political polarization that characterizes the USA right now.  Many citizens seem unaware of the fact that all humans are biased and so by default fail to work hard to overcome their personal biases. Those who give free rein to their biases allow those biases to reinforce themselves into hardened positions that can't be overcome by any rational argument, no matter how fact-based.  Journalists have a serious responsibility to help the public obtain accurate factual information and to offer as unbiased an interpretation of those facts as possible.  Unfortunately, in my experience, the facts suggest many journalists fail in this obligation.  The facts are not represented by two polar opposites having a confrontational debate, either - the shades of gray in between bipolar positions are simply not being represented.  The two sides of a polarized debate may not be equal, as is the case in the global warming "controversy".  Presenting them as equals is a factual error!

Ignorance of the facts is just as dangerous as an outright factual error.  In some discussions with which I'm familiar, various people engage in a sort of revisionist view of historical facts (such as those who claim US law is directly descended from biblical law).  A journalist who's unaware of the history of ideas and their underlying facts is ill-equipped to do interviews with people concerning those ideas.  Such journalists are easily bullied by adroit politicians, for example, as seen in most of the recent GOP debates among the candidates for President.

I'm told by some that my concern for the facts in crockumentaries is just my nerdishness showing.  Who really cares if the facts are all screwed up?  It's my belief that we all need to have a passion for the facts, and to act on recognition of our own biases and ignorance during discourse about how facts are to be interpreted.