Sunday, June 9, 2013

Storm Chasing's Day of Infamy

The day some of us have long foreseen has finally come to pass - a tornado has killed storm chasers.  31 May 2013 will live forever in chasing history as a day of infamy.  This has triggered a torrent of op-ed media articles, blog posts, and considerable traffic on social media - including this blog post, of course.

The biggest shock for me is not that it finally happened, but that it happened to my friend Tim Samaras (and his son Paul, as well as colleague Carl Young).  Further, there was another chaser killed by the tornado - Richard Charles Henderson - whom I don't know but suspect that he more closely fit the "profile" of what I expected would be the first chaser killed by a tornado.  More on him shortly.  The particular challenge Tim's death creates for responsible, knowledgeable chasers is obvious:  being a safety-conscious, responsible chaser is no guarantee of safety from the storms.  Tim was killed doing what he loved.  But his activities were inherently more dangerous than those pursued by most responsible chasers.  To achieve his goal of placing "probes" so that tornadoes would pass over them necessarily put him at great risk.  Before Tim's successes, getting tornadoes to hit purpose-built and deployed instrument packages had basically proven to be nearly impossible.  To be successful, you have to take substantially greater risks than most chasers.  Storm chasing is inherently dangerous and none of us are completely immune from that danger.  Including me.

I'm proud to say that I wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Tim in his pursuit of his first National Geographic grant.  I gave him the strongest possible recommendation.  He clearly had the technical expertise to do the project, the chasing experience to put him in the right place at the right time, and the level of responsibility to carry out his work in the safest possible fashion, given the high danger of doing so.  Tim was not about fame and fortune - he was dedicated to learning about tornadoes using his engineering expertise to create a practical design to accomplish his goals.  It was a pleasure to be of some help in getting his work started properly.

Tim's death reminds me of David A. Johnston's tragic death - the USGS scientist killed by the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption in 1980.  The science was robbed of work he would have done by his premature loss, just as we have been robbed of Tim's work way too soon - to say nothing of the loss to his family and friends.  News of that 1980 tragedy affected me deeply and personally at that time, since there were some obvious parallels to the danger associated with storm chasing.  Although I didn't know Johnston in any way prior to hearing about his death, I felt I understood him and his motives.  He was killed pursuing his passion.  His was not a feat of great bravery, but rather was driven by the same need to understand the natural world that some storm chasers have.  I had been intrigued with vulcanology when I was a boy - I could have wound up as a vulcanologist.  That very well could have been me that infamous day in 1980.  I would have wanted to be at the volcano, where the knowledge was to be gained.  This is what we scientists do - it's got nothing to do at all with bravery.  Nothing at all!

Tim's death, like David Johnston's, is an act neither of bravery or bravado.  Tim wasn't killed pursuing fame and fortune, or indulging in an "extreme sport" for the sake of drawing attention to himself.  He was killed doing what he had to do in order to leave the world with a legacy of greater knowledge.  I honor that goal and I honor the lives of Tim and his colleagues.  He brought great credit to storm chasing.  Moreover, there's no shame in becoming the first victim of a tornado while storm chasing.  If it happened to Tim and his team, it could happen to anyone engaging in that danger.   The atmosphere cares nothing about its victims - at most, it's indifferent.

Although the fourth victim was not a science professional, it seems he had some interest in storms and simply blundered into a situation he was unprepared to handle.  He leaves behind mourning family and friends, too.  This sort of victim is what I had anticipated the first deaths by tornado chasing to be - people who had some interest in storms but neither the experience nor the knowledge to avoid the danger if it came upon them suddenly.  Had Richard Charles Henderson been the first and only storm chasing victim of the tornado on 31 May 2013, I wouldn't have been pleased about having my expectations fulfilled.  Instead, I'd have been very unhappy that all the media publicity had finally led to what we all feared it could lead non-professionals to do!  I could not, and will not exult in the death of any chaser, no matter who it might be!

Storm chasing's day of infamy has arrived.  As we mourn our recent losses and gather some solace from thoughts of the good times that we had with the victims, we chasers should draw insight from what this tragedy has revealed.  I had my personal revelation about tornadoes on 24 May 1973 - now a tad more than 40 years ago.  See item #32 here.  Specifically, the spectacular atmospheric phenomena I so much hoped to see could cause great sorrow and pain.  It took me some time afterward to arrive at a moral accommodation with my passion for storms.  First, I recalled that the atmosphere doesn't do my bidding - what happens is not under my control and so I have no responsibility for the storm.  However, I also realized that by being there, and learning about storms, and sharing that knowledge with society, we could mitigate the toll from such events.

I can chase with a clear conscience because I serve a purpose beyond myself in doing so.  How many of today's "extreme" chasers can make such a claim and be credible in doing so?  I hope they'll use this occasion to reconsider just why they chase and decide to spend little or no time focused on themselves, but rather seek to achieve some more worthy goal than self-aggrandizement and boastful bravado.  Let them become more sensitive to the anguish of tornado victims.  Let their cameras be turned away from them and remain on the phenomena they claim to seek.  Let them take pains to give something meaningful back for all their fun and excitement.  Let this day of infamy mean more chasing with safety, responsibility, and courtesy.


Keith Hosman KC8TCQ said...

Very well written Chuck. I couldn't have put it better myself.

Garrett Fornea said...

Well said, Chuck. Tim Samaras was one of my absolute favorite chasers - one of my personal heroes - and I highly respect his devotion to doing what he loved, as well as his no-nonsense approach to safety in chasing. His legacy will not soon be forgotten.
Upon hearing news of his death one could ask if a young, verdant chaser should continue chasing. If that chaser cannot accept real responsibility for the fact that he and his friends can be killed in this activity, then perhaps they shouldn't continue. If they can accept real responsibility for this possibility, then that young, verdant chaser should strive all the more to become the best chaser they can learn all they can about severe weather and the patterns driving learn the geography of the areas he chases find a meaningful goal to work toward...and above all to implement an understanding and practice of storm chasing ethics, loving his fellow chaser as he would love himself.

Brett Thompson said...

Tim Samaras' death reminds me on some level of the Crocodile Hunter's death so many years ago. I just couldn't believe that out of all people it happened to him! Considering just how terrible a situation can become when a tornado turns violent, I'm not surprised that it came to pass that a tornado was too large and too fast to be outrun by everyone in it's path, but what I was surprised about is that it happened the week I was down there chasing! It was sad to see a city I've come to like so much (Oklahoma City) bear the brunt of so much destruction in such a short length of time.

Chuck Doswell said...

UPDATE - it now appears that four "local chasers" [local residents that don't chase regularly (and so lack experience and needed knowledge of storms) but only when a potentially tornadic storm is in their local area] were killed by the 27 April 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado. There might even be earlier "local chaser" fatalities about which we know nothing. No one knows they were chasing. Of course, the El Reno tornado of 2013 also killed such a local chaser, as well as the TWISTEX team. Therefore, chasing's real day of infamy likely occurred at least as far back as 27 April 2011, and may have been still earlier. We chasers all bear some measure of responsibility for these deaths.