Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chasing mythology - 2

My next storm chasing mythology target is the often-repeated notion that storm chasing saves lives. Chasers rationalize their chasing in this way by claiming that they provide information about ongoing storms, including identifying when and where tornadoes are occurring. It may or may not be the case that an individual making such a claim actually takes the time to report what they're seeing in real time.

In any case, the fact is that it's only the National Weather Service (NWS) and civil authorities who can claim legitimately to save lives through the storm warnings they issue by using information that might (or might not) be provided by chasers. Chasing, per se, saves no lives, ever! In my experience, many chasers are too busy pursuing their hobby to be bothered with calling in their observations. In 1999, in a famous chaser convergence near Almena, KS, my wife and I were the only chasers amongst a multitude to call the NWS to report the development of a tornado. There were dozens of vehicles scurrying about in typical chaser convergence chaos, and no one apparently had called the NWS, even though a funnel cloud that would become a tornado was in progress! It was astonishing to me when we called the NWS to learn we had been the first to call!

The technology of chasing has made huge strides - now it's become possible for the NWS to follow the GPS locations of chasers and to call the chaser, rather than waiting for the chaser to call them. Live video streaming allows the NWS to see what some chasers see through their windshields. This is all well and good - it allows chasers the luxury of not having to bother with actively reporting what they see and to maintain the illusion that they're "contributing" information in this passive way. But it remains true that it's still not the chasers who are saving lives. That's the responsibility of the NWS and civil authorities (first responders, emergency managers, storm spotters, TV broadcasters, etc.) .

I know of no chasers who chase in order to save lives. Chasers chase because seeing storms is a passion, or because they want to become rich and/or famous people (drawing attention to themselves), or any of a host of other reasons, including science. Storm chasing is a basically selfish activity. Note that storm spotting can and does save lives, but spotting and chasing are very distinct activities! Spotters are volunteers serving their communities - chasers are simply pursuing their own interests.

Scientific storm chasers also like to use the "saving lives" card, arguing that their science will be put to use to increase warning lead times (an argument I've disputed here and here), or whatever. This argument is simply not valid - storm chasers working on a scientific project are also not chasing to save lives, although their scientific findings might someday be used successfully by someone who is responsible for saving lives. They're out there to do science, not to save lives. Their passion is for learning about the atmosphere. The new understanding they can derive from chasing might or might not have an impact on reducing storm-related fatalities. Life-saving isn't on their agenda when they go out on a chase.

Some storm chasers, myself included, have been involved in helping the NWS develop spotter training programs. I support this because I believe it's an important way for chasers to give something back to the society that supports the programs (like the NWS data) they use to intercept storms. In fact, I'm proud of having contributed to spotter training - but I make no claim that I saved lives by doing so. I give the credit for life-saving to the NWS and the civil authorities!!

The fact is that only the NWS and civil authorities save lives when tornadoes and severe storms threaten. Storm chasers are simply hoping to clean up their image by claiming that role for themselves. But no one has given them that responsibility (with the arguable exception of those chasers who chase for media broadcasters, a group that's been known to exceed their authority at times).

There is one way in which storm chasers might save lives - by stopping to render medical assistance to people injured by a storm. I know of no storm chaser who can say, however, that they've ever saved a victim's life. Perhaps a few such exist and I'm just unaware of their life-saving contributions. If so, I honor their unselfish actions. The number of lives saved via the direct first aid of storm chasers must be pretty small, though. Moreover, in order to save a life by this process, a storm chaser must stop chasing! In other words, it's not the chasing that has saved a life in such a case! The most such a chaser could say was that chasing brought him/her to a place where they could render life-saving aid. But saving a life wasn't on their agenda when they began the chase.