Monday, November 18, 2013

Another tornado outbreak - Second thoughts about chasing?

The November 17th tornado outbreak, affecting mostly some small towns in Illinois, is an example of several things.  As bad as it was, it could have been much worse - no major population centers were hit, so that particular bullet was dodged.  Despite some pitiful decisions made by the NFL about the Bears-Ravens game in Chicago, this large-venue event was not hit by a tornado.  The choice to wait to suspend the game and evacuate the field more or less at the last minute would have been a disaster if the storm had produced a violent tornado that actually hit the field.  Another bullet dodged.

There's a relentless inevitability about tornadoes, however.  Such escapes can lead people to fail to appreciate how fortunate they were, and how their luck simply can't go on forever.  Eventually, a 'worst case' scenario will happen!  The forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center did a fantastic job, anticipating this event several days in advance and ratcheting up the perceived risk as the day approached.  I hope people understand how far such forecasting has advanced during the course of my professional career, and take their forecasts seriously enough to be prepared for dangerous tornado outbreaks.

There have been some expressions of second thoughts by some thoughtful storm chasers after yesterday's events in Illinois (and elsewhere).  It seems that the events of this past May in Oklahoma, including the 31 May El Reno tornado in which 4 (or possibly 5) storm chasers were killed, have caused thoughtful storm chasers to consider how their hobby of storm chasing has a dark side:  tornadoes can cause massive human suffering that can go on for years afterward.  It's not just a show put on by the atmosphere for the benefit of storm chasers.  I've said many times that tornadoes are not evil or malevolent - rather, they're simply indifferent to their impact on humans.  When we humans are in the path, it's not by any person's design or wish, and certainly the atmosphere is not producing the carnage in any purposeful way.  (see item #32 here)

I think it's entirely appropriate for storm chasers to think over what they're doing out there - to contemplate just what they're out there for, and whether or not that reason justifies their behavior.   I hear a lot of chasers (not all, of course) going on and on about how what they do is saving lives.  I beg to disagree - that's not what you're out there to do, for the most part.  You're deluding yourself if you think so.  Virtually all storm chasers are out there because they love to see storms, myself included.  It's basically a selfish activity unlike, say, storm spotting, which is done to provide protection for communities.  If you say you're out there to save lives, prove it!  Demonstrate by your actions that your primary commitment is to save lives.  Most of the storm chasers who make such claims have done little or nothing to save lives - I've seen this with my own eyes.  In more than one case of 'chaser convergence' involving scores of chasers gathered around a storm, I learned that the call that I made to an NWS office to let them know what we were seeing was the only call from a chaser!  Irresponsible chasers of that sort are the norm, and I've watched how they behave.   What have they actually done to save lives?  Can they honestly say that's why they're out there?  I don't think so.

Irresponsible chasers certainly should take the time to reconsider their chasing!  Is a tornado outbreak just a majestic display put on by the atmosphere for their entertainment?  What price is paid by the victims so chasers can sell their video for top dollar and have their names (and faces) on the TV?  A responsible storm chaser must realize eventually that the atmosphere doesn't produce tornadoes just because chasers want to see them - chasers don't cause tornadoes, obviously.  But responsible chasers should come to understand that they need to give something back to our society that can mitigate the impact of these devastating storms.  If some chasers feel no empathy for the victims of such events, they're a poor excuse for a human being.  And they should set an example of responsible chasing rather than chasing as a trash sport.  They shouldn't be bragging about the 'extreme' risks they're taking and sneering at the notion that they should be responsible.

Tim Samaras was a responsible chaser and his loss is going to be felt for a long time - he was not about pretending to save lives.  And he didn't brag about his exploits.  Rather, he was attempting to do serious science to learn more about tornadoes, which clearly fascinated him (as they do to most chasers).  If that knowledge he was seeking could ever be used to reduce casualties, he would have been ecstatic, I'm sure.  But to be honest, that thought wasn't what drove Tim to do what he did - and there's no shame or irresponsibility to admit that's what you're doing out there.  What matters is he was doing what he could to give something back.

19 comments:

Stephen Strader said...

Chuck,

On your first point (the bullets dodged), you might find the article (http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00047.1?af=R) Dr. Walker Ashley, myself, and others have recently published interesting. And for your other points, well said once again!

Stephen Strader said...

Chuck,

On your first point (the bullets dodged), you might find the article (http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00047.1?af=R) Dr. Walker Ashley, myself, and others have recently published interesting. And for your other points, well said once again!

George Hrabovsky said...

My team and I go out for four reasons:
1) We like storms.

2) We are part of the warning system.

3) We acquire training materials for our severe spotting training courses.

4) We are good at it.

If we didn't like doing it, chasing would be stupid—it is very expensive and it is dangerous. We were in central Il chasing the outbreak and got some good video. We were not sure of what we were seeing because it was a long way off. In hindsight, with damage trace information, we can say that we probably got video of the Washington tornado (not to be confused with the Washington County tornado). At the time we did not know for sure, so we didn't call it in. We chased three rotating wall clouds. but nothing developed out of them. Had something developed we would have immediately called the Lincoln NWS office and 911. If you see a tornado and do not call it in, you are absolutely not saving lives!

James Gustina said...

The "saving lives" excuse people use gets on my nerves more than anything else. It's an attempted justification of what is essentially a selfish hobby so others won't judge. There also seem to be a lot of people with hero syndrome who think storm chasing is some noble quest to save people.

Chuck Doswell said...

James,

If chasing is indeed a 'noble quest to save people' for some chasers, then the behavior of those chasers would have to be dramatically different from what I have seen chasers doing. The 'we're out there saving lives' rings pretty hollow to me. The people dedicated to saving lives are pretty much limited to spotters, NWS warning forecasters, EMs and first responders.

James Gustina said...

Exactly. I still have yet to meet another chaser who goes walking out the door with the intent to help others. That's not to say there aren't a good number who stop and help when they run into damage, but I'd definitely agree that first responders, spotters and the like are the one out there for helping others.

Tim Supinie said...

You mentioned your experience that your report to the NWS was the only one from a chaser. I can't remember an instance in the last 3-4 years chasing in Oklahoma where I or a member of my group was the only person to call in a report. Granted, I usually only chase higher-end days in Oklahoma, which might be part of the reason for that. I remember on 24 May 2011, we called in a report on the first tornado produced by the El Reno supercell. The person who actually called in the report said the NWS was annoyed because we were the zillionth chaser to call in a report on this tornado.

Rob Hurkes said...

There have been a lot of chaseable violent tornadoes in the last two years, and many chasers have gotten very close to these beasts resulting in three increasingly common experiences:

1) moments where they really consider their own mortality - not just getting hit by a tornado, but by a large tornado
2) deaths of chasers they know and respect
3) being personally involved in search and rescue and coming across injured people

The 'dark side' of chasing has always been there, it's just that more people are being exposed to it more often. When I first started chasing I dreamed of tornadoes like Deer Trail 2010. Now I have nightmares of the damage from tornadoes like El Reno, Mapleton, and Wayne.

On a little bit of a side note and to someone's point above: I personally think any time you feel the need to justify or advertise your hobby - you're doing it for the wrong reasons, and I'll leave it at that.

Glyn Jones said...

SkyWarn UK have a team out every 2 years atm, and we encourage our trained spotters to register with SkyWarn USA and head out on self-drive arrangements rather than take private tours. Our last report was the EF2 in Rush Co, KS on May 25th 2012. In the Mod Risk in KS a few days after, one of my team asked why we were chasing the dryline rather than the Mod Risk, I simply replied, "There's no-one down there." We saw nothing from one wall cloud, but it was much better than being in the chaser convergence being hit by large hail near the I-70.

Keep driving the point home, Chuck. It's okay to take a photo once they've used their phones for what they were invented for.

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

Well-timed and reasoned post, Chuck. You briefly noted it, but Tim's work was aimed at contributing to the body of knowledge about tornadoes, and moreover, his work appeared in multiple papers. Unlike others who brag about chasing for science, but produce none, Tim walked the walk. We could extend your "saving lives" argument to those who supposedly chase for "science" or claim to be doing "research", though they haven't published even a flea turd of related material in scientific literature. Or is that another rant for another time?

Chuck Doswell said...

Roger,

It's a different topic, for sure. A lot fewer chasers make such a claim than the 'saving lives' claim. But I certainly agree with you about the hollowness of some chasers who do in fact claim to be 'doing it for science' in public media.

Chuck Doswell said...

Added note:

When I talked about chasers mulling over why they're out there and whether or not that justifies their behavior, I was not talking about justifying their chasing to others - only that they should be chasing responsibly and be aware of what that means. But the defensive reactions are interesting ...

Chuck Doswell said...

Tim Supinie,

My policy regarding calls to the NWS is that when warnings have already been issued for the storm I'm chasing, I don't need to bother calling. The times when I've had the experience I described were situations where I was not hearing any warnings, on tornadoes in rural areas. I think your restricted chasing experience is indeed a factor in your observations.

Robert Ballard said...

Certainly agree that Chasers need to try to give back. Otherwise, chasing storms and tornadoes is no better than chasing ambulances or fire trucks: You're just getting in the way.

I can't speak for other offices or forecasters, but I will speak for myself, having worked in the hot seat in several offices. Whether I have a warning out or not on a storm, I want as many real time reports of what is happening with the storm as I can get.

Chuck Doswell said...

An example of what I mean, taken from a Facebook post ..."to hell with the haters an follow your dream.. you'll see the inside of one. An it will be while the rest of them pussys. Are rolling sissy footage miles away from one." Yes, to recommend caution and common sense is being a "hater" and it's being a "pussy" or "sissy" to avoid driving into a tornado ...

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay, lots of good points. You asked what price is paid by the victims so that some joker can get their face on tv. I would like to ask you what price they pay because I'm not quite sure of your point here. We know that the storms happen regardless of whether or not anyone is around to record them. Those that do record them usually show up after the victim has become a victim. Maybe you are implying that they are being re victimized by being recorded and having those images sold, for the benefit of the photographer. If that is the case, I see your point. At any rate, I am just asking for a clarification. Thank you for your time.

Lisa MacArthur
Riverside RI

Anonymous said...

I would like to add something minor to your essay. It's my feeling that responsible chasers should first be concerned with "doing no harm." Don't get in the way, don't cause accidents, don't park in the middle of the highway, etc. You've covered those in various essays. I imagine that you probably feel that those are obvious and they should be. As far as giving back goes, you can report storms, you can try to help, if you can do without getting in the way, other than that, I don't know what most people could do to give back other than to stay away in the first place and not hinder the first responders. Maybe you have some suggestions.

Lisa MacArthur
Riverside RI

Chuck Doswell said...

Lisa,

There are many ways to give back. It's all described in my Web essays on responsible storm chasing. Please check them out.

Chuck Doswell said...

Lisa,

That was the point of my comment about the price paid by victims. This post was in the wake of a brouhaha relating to a photo sold of a victim who was either already dead, or dying.