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.