Saturday, May 8, 2010

Are chasers saving lives?

In various storm chasing forums, from time to time, claims are made that storm chasing saves lives. This claim has been thrown out frequently as a blanket justification for storm chasing, typically when chasers begin to feel they're being persecuted for their behavior. I want to examine such claims and offer my thoughts on their validity.

I have no doubt that a few chasers over time have run across storm victims and rendered first aid, which certainly is the right thing to do. In fact, I mentioned that possibility in my essay on responsible storm chasing here. Most chasers, most of the time, are not tending to storm victims - that task is best carried out, imho, by first responders who are trained in first aid. Being a "good Samaritan" is fine, but it represents only a tiny contribution by storm chasers.

Next, we come to the issue of chasers reporting what they see, in time to influence the warnings. My observation is that most chasers, most of the time, do not report what they see in time to be of much use in warnings. They're too caught up in the excitement of the chase to be concerned about such things. Far more influential in the warning process than storm chasers are the storm spotters - a group made up mostly by volunteers who give of their time in order to be of service to their communities. Some spotters are chasers, and some chasers are spotters, but it's spotters rather than chasers who are contributing the most toward timely warnings for those in the path of hazardous weather. I admire storm spotters greatly precisely because they are unselfish contributors to the welfare of their communities. A few responsible chasers have contributed directly to life saving warnings occasionally, of course, and I mean them no disrespect by what I'm asserting here. If the shoe I'm describing doesn't fit you personally, I'm not about to make you wear it. Far from it, in fact - I salute your unselfish acts.

What I'm going to say next is bound to irritate some chasers, but the facts suggest strongly that storm chasing is basically selfish activity. We're indulging in our wish to experience powerful storms, especially tornadoes. We live in an age that allows us the luxury of uninhibited travel on public roads, as well as affordable vehicles and fuel costs, while our vocations permit us the financial resources to spend on this hobby. For myself, it's a great privilege we've been afforded by the luck of living in a time and place where such activities are even possible.

It's my observation that most chasers contribute little or nothing of the fruits of their chasing labors to others. For some chasers, of course, the lure of cash for "shock video" is a primary goal for their chases, and for a few, even fame (as well as fortune) can be the result of their chasing bravado. Some chasers seek to become known as the mythical "best chaser". Such motivations - fame, money, braggadocio - are all focused on the chaser, not on the storms. Irresponsibility is the norm amongst chasers, and a few even boast of their commitment to being irresponsible! They take pride in seeing themselves as outlaws, beyond the limits of responsibility. As foreseen decades ago by my friend Dave Hoadley, chasing has become a "trash sport" for many. I never imagined that this was possible ...

When I began chasing in 1972, it became evident from the start that the seeds of what chasing was to become were already present. Motives for chasing - and the actions pursuant to those motives - varied from one chaser to the next. As the number of chasers has grown, the variability of motives has remained constant, but the "wings" of the distribution have been reached, with a small number of "extreme" chasers. That tendency was there at the beginning but it took the expansion of chasing to plumb the depths to which chasing could sink.

There are two chasers whose actions spoke most loudly to me of unselfish responsibility: the aforementioned David Hoadley and Alan Moller. These two were the clear leaders among several chasers who went about contributing their chase results, toward I believe is the most important life-saving activity in which chasers can participate: spotter training. They began this work in the early 1970s, shortly after realizing that their photographs and films (later videos, of course) can be valuable in spotter training. Al spearheaded several spotter training programs in the National Weather Service (with the help of many others, of course). Dave gave liberally of his labors to those who needed them for training. I have absolutely no doubt that many lives have been saved as a result of those spotter training programs.

Unfortunately, there's no ledger book that contains the names of those saved. We have no tally of those whose survival depended - in part - on the contributions of responsible chasers. But this is where chasers definitely and proudly can claim to have saved lives. For most self-centered chasers, such is not enough, of course - they want personal glory and recognition. It's not enough for these chasers to be simply a contributor to complex programs that have resulted in an integrated warning system that protects people in the U.S. from dangerous weather.

Responsible chasers like Dave and Al didn't do what they did for glory or cash or for bragging rights - they weren't after recognition in any form. Recognition isn't why they chased and had nothing to do with their acceptance of responsibility. Rather, they engaged in these actions because it was a way to give something back to a society that allowed them the great privilege to be storm chasers. They did it because they could, and it was the right, responsible thing to do.

Finally, I hope that contributions to the science of meteorology by storm chasers have been, and will continue to be the basis for life-saving efforts. I believe scientific storm chasing already has had an effect on storm spotter training and on severe storm forecasting (both public and private). Even as I write this, VORTEX2 is underway and I wish them great success in the upcoming storm season. Responsible storm chasers share the results of their chases with scientists. Moreover, even late storm reports - that is, too late to affect the warning process - still are important in documenting what happened. The science of meteorology depends on knowing, as well as possible, what weather events occurred, as well as where, when, and (if possible) how intense those events were. Irresponsible chasers share nothing with anyone.

If I felt that science didn't offer us the chance to return something to society for its investment in us and our professional careers (which are basically fun, not work!), then I'd be ashamed to be a meteorologist. Storm chasing has given me many things, including the great honor of knowing wonderful people like Al and Dave, and I've tried to represent storm chasing to my scientific colleagues in the best way possible, to establish the credibility of storm chasing as an important component of the science. I'm proud to see that programs like VORTEX2 implicitly recognize the value of storm chasing and, ultimately, the development of applications of our scientific understanding toward saving lives.


Anonymous said...

It will be such a joyous day when you've taken your last breath on this earth.

Chuck Doswell said...

Opinions about me vary. You've stated yours, albeit without the courage to do so openly. I hope you live to see the day when I take my last breath.

Unknown said...

I agree whole heartedly with everything you've said here Chuck. Keep up the good fight!

superstreamingtweetingfacebookingstormchaser said...

I will make a prediction that within the next year or two you will be able to ask the question "Are chasers costing lives?" With the numbers of chasers increasing so dramatically ever year it won't be long until we start to hear stories about how they are getting in the way of rescue efforts, causing accidents etc. Sure some chaser my be helping out but the vast majority will be to busy looking at how many people are watching their streaming video and posting to twitter about it.

Chuck Doswell said...

Super ... I hope you're wrong ...

Kenny Blumenfeld said...

I think chasers often believe they have to justify what they do, and the whole "we save lives" bit is just one bizarre contortion of the defensive rhetoric that emerges from such beliefs.

Moreover, I think playing the "lifesaver" card is disingenuous, because it implies a noble motive for the action. Chasers do not chase to save lives; they chase because they want to see tornadoes! Saving a life maybe a fortuitous and heroic outcome, but it is not the motivation for any chase.

And this leads me to a point that is really tangential to your post: chasers go to all sorts of weird extents to justify what they do. Many claim they are collecting scientific data (while comparatively few actually are); many pose as agency-free authority figures by sporting flashing lights and decals; many claim they are serving society; some say they are saving lives; some act AS part of the media when they are really just trying to get video to sell TO the media...a minor difference. Why not just admit that, for reasons beyond explanation, you really really really want to see storms 9and/or tornadoes)? It is true for all chasers, and there is no shame in it.

Chuck Doswell said...


Actually, the stories about chasers getting in the way of rescue efforts and chaser reactions to those accusations were the trigger for a round of "We're saving lives!" comments. Hence, that part of your prediction is already happening.


I agree with virtually all that you've said - it seems to be a defensive mentality that implies that people feel a twinge of guilt about indulging their wish to witness powerful storms. When I encountered tornado damage for the first time, I felt that twinge, myself - but soon realized 1) tornadoes were not my fault, and 2) there were things we could do to reduce the human impact with what we learned. Hence, the spotter training programs, and all the rest that many of us have been doing over the years. And I believe those projects have had some positive effect. I'm not a psychologist, so if that's being defensive, so be it.

The only reason to be ashamed to be a chaser is the blatant and rampant irresponsibility of some fraction of other chasers, whose behavior puts a stain on the rest of us. At the same time, I feel no need to advertise to the rest of the world what I'm doing when I'm chasing - light bars, garish decals and paint, pseudo-mobile mesonet "instrument" arrays, etc. Those are all infantile and clearly aimed at calling attention to the chaser ... which is the goal of some chasers (to bring attention to themselves).

Scott said...

Claiming storm chasing saves lives is like claiming that that surfing, hang gliding, or parachuting saves lives. It is a thrill seeking activity by in large.

Chuck Doswell said...


Your comment might go a bit too far the other direction. As I've described in the main body of the blog, some chasers have contributed to activities (e.g., storm spotting and other components of the integrated warning system) that have certainly saved lives. The motives for storm chasing vary a lot among chasers and it does some of us something of an injustice to describe it simply as "thrill seeking" - a phrase with pretty negative connotations. But I agree fully that storm chasing, per se, saves no lives.

Scott Longmore said...

Personally, I don't think there is anything wrong with storm chasing for "yourself". As long as your not endangering others lives, getting in the way of emergency services or law enforcement or disrupting forecasters. I do keep a few NWS numbers in my cell phone if I see some thing that isn't and should be warned it helps with their verification.

I'm certainly not a big fan of how popular, glorified or commercialized storm chasing has become in the past 20 years, which is how long I've been chasing. Storm chasing is becoming more dangerous in my opinion, namely because of more chasers and the reckless behavior from a segment of the chaser community. I've always storm chased for an appreciation of nature first and to practice my forecasting and photography skills second. I would be lying if I didn't say I like the thrill too, but I get the same appreciation of nature and thrill snowboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking, etc. So I really don't see the difference, but it certainly doesn't mean I'm going to pass someone on wet roads with standing water at 80mph like I saw on my last chase. Ridiculous.

So there are a select few chasers, spotters, etc that probably are saving lives...and at the same time there are chasers who are most likely endangering lives. I've already heard of chasers getting into accidents with innocent bystanders because they were speeding through small towns and not paying attention. Hopefully the deeds of the good are out weighting those of the bad chasers.

BTW. Hello Dr. Doswell, not sure if you remember me. I was one of the OU/NSSL REU students in 1992 and we had a conversation at one of Paul Janish's shindigs in 2001 when I was contemplating taking a position with SPC. I enjoy Gene and your High Instability show. Cheers Scott

Unknown said...

Thank you Chuck.

Many of folk may disagree with you; however I have always believed that – for the most part there is a vast difference between chasers and spotters/severe storm tracking.

Setting up a severe storm tracking and response organization, having the talent on board to operate the organization 7/24/365 is no easy task. Running the nets, the MOD’s. AMOD’s, NCO’s, and working with multiple local, state, federal entities, working with local EOC’s. is just something chasers are in their own right, are not concerned of. One does seek the avenues of wealth in giving back.

That being said, it’s been my more then 40 years of combined experience that chasing is just that, chasing. As I keep preaching to our folks… what we do is severe storm tracking and response. We provide ground information in the most professional and expedient manner possible. Our job in forecasting, nowcasting, being there days before the bells and whistles go off is critical to the means of assisting in the protection of lives and property. Such organizations operate on a meet, greet and track, while relaying ground truth in real time mode. If you chase, sooner or latter you catch it or it catches you.

Having trained personal is critical to such a mission. I agree that there are excellent chasers out there and they provide a valuable service to science and community. It’s just not our cup of tea. Although yes, we do use chase videos for training and yes. Such videos can be used to example of what not to do, storm structure evolvement, action and reaction and the list goes on. Said chaser information is used as part of the big picture.

As storms inhale and exhale, last breaths are taken, but they are born again.

Great career congrads Chuck and thanks for all you do.

Chasers, be safe and be well.

Dale Bernstein

Chuck Doswell said...


I can think of no reason other than a wish to call attention to oneself when someone festoons their chase vehicle with all of these 'adornments'. Since virtually none of them are necessary for chasing, while some of them are on the margins of legality, and some of them are completely bogus, the only plausible explanation is a puerile attempt to display your 'identity' as a storm chaser. To the extent that external equipment and markings serve some legitimate purpose for storm chasing, such things are, of course, exempt from my criticism. If the shoe doesn't fit someone, I'm not requiring anyone to wear it.

Chuck Doswell said...


Well, it seems I've disappointed another person. Oh, well ... I see no useful purpose to identifying oneself as a chaser other than what amounts to a childish wish for attention. Empathy? I might understand that feeling and might have had similar feelings as a child, but I have no sympathy for it now. Especially for chasers, this wish to identify oneself with a group has been an issue with me for years - see:

If any chaser feels this need for attention, then the chase isn't really about storms - it's about the chaser.

Chuck Doswell said...


You said

"I see no substantive difference between choosing to wear my old OWL t-shirt, or festooning my car with a UMich bumper sticker, or putting some of the crap out there that chasers are putting on their vehicles."

What t-shirt you wear or celebrating your affiliation with a UMich bumper sticker is one thing. Putting on decals about being on some fictitious "storm research team" or putting up a Davis anemometer and a mobile-Mesonet-type 'sewer pipe' is quite another. If you can't see the difference, then we're just going to have to agree to disagree.

Scott said...

I would not chase without being prepared to report a tornado. At the very least I'd be listening to the local two meter or 70 cm weather net and would be prepared to jump in if they were not already aware of the tornado.

I just don't think it would be right to not make a report.

I do think that those who videotape tornadoes and who get all excited and whoop it up should edit that out before posting the video. It makes them look like morons and the lack of sensitivity to the damage that is likely to be caused is not likely to impress anyone either.

Dan R. said...

Great points to which I agree with. I'm not sure what more can be done to improve the warning process for tornadoes, or if any individual chaser can really make any impact these days in the Plains. It's enough that I've started turning my attention to other weather-related hazards like icy roads, an area I feel like individuals have a shot at making a real difference in saving lives. For chasers who have the true motivation to save lives while chasing severe storms, focusing on tornado-prone areas outside of the Plains seems like the only way to accomplish that. The photography and video scores may be less frequent, but the chance to make a difference is greater.

Scott said...

Chucks comment was that chasers sometimes use the argument that they are saving lives in order to justify their activity.

Chasing responsibly is good for everyone. It motivates some people to learn, others just spend money and help the economy, others may provide useful warnings.

I don't think that the chasers should be doing anything that would make them feel as though they have to justify their activities.

Obey the laws, at least as much as everyone else does and don't cause any traffic problems. Do that and you're no different than anyone else.

However, I do believe that everyone who goes out storm chasing should have the ability to make reports if necessary. That's just my opinion.

In the end the important thing is to not endanger anyone else.

As long as you're not endangering anyone the fact that you are chasing a storm is irrelevant and frankly no ones business but your own.

Park in the right of way, cause an accident, hit someone because you're not paying attention to the road and then it very much becomes other people's business.

I would recommend that storm chasing organizations recommend to their member to follow the rules of the road or sooner or later the police will start reminding people in force.

Chuck Doswell said...

Part of being a responsible chaser involves more than obeying the law and minding your own business. It means giving something back to the society in which chasing has become a hobby to so many. There are various ways to give back - calling in reports (in real time or later), rendering aid to storm victims, contributing to spotter training or to the science of severe storms, etc. It's not mandatory, but it's what I believe a responsible chaser should do.