I get a lot of questions about how storm chasing use to be.
My best-selling book Storm Chaser — A Lifelong Quest to Find the Perfect Storm is now available through Amazon as an e-book.
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With the tragic deaths of veteran storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Yuong, many people are asking: Why do storm chasers need to get so close to tornadoes? Why were such experienced storm chasers killed?
In order to answer this question, one must first understand the assorted reasons why people chase storms and may want to get close. These include: media, scientists and researchers, thrill seekers, spotters and recreational chasers. The other group, and likely the most disturbing are local “rubberneckers.” During the El Reno, Oklahoma storms, we encountered hundreds upon hundreds of locals who came out to watch the action, including an endless line of cars along highway 81. Most were motivated by live local television coverage. This was all fun and games until a late day tornado began to move southeast and the crowds turned to panic as tornado sirens blared. Had a large tornado touched down, the consequences would have been horrific. These local “storm chasers” are usually not experienced chasers and should not be injected into the lot of experienced chasers when evaluating behavior.
The majority of local onlookers had no desire (or meteorological knowledge) to get near the “bears cage,” chasers slang for a dangerous location near the interface of monstrous hail and tornadoes.
As for the deaths of the storm chasers, no one may ever know what happened. These were experienced storm chasers, not thrill seeking amateurs. Something had to have gone terrible wrong. It may have been an unfortunate combination of sudden tornado expansion and movement (it was 2.6 miles wide at one point and made a sharp turn), or the lack of roads leaning to safety. Regardless, they were conducting “real” scientific research. They will be missed.
In addition to the three experienced chasers who were killed, Richard Charles Henderson, an amateur chaser also lost his life. He was somehow overlooked, but his death should not be forgotten in the overall scheme of things. His last picture was a cell phone image of the killer tornado sent to a friend. It’s likely he did not realize he was in danger until it was too late. We may never know Richard’s or other local / amateur chasers inspiration — not for simply chasing — but for getting too close. There are the usual suspects: local news stations, television shows, other chasers and You Tube. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.
This raises the question. Why do some experienced chasers want or need to get so close to violent tornadoes?
1: Science: There are a few scientific questions that still need to be answered about the environment leading up to tornadogenesis. Although scientists have unlocked many mysteries of upper storm environments (because it’s much easier and safer to use remote radar and sensing equipment), the area from the cloud base to the ground still holds a number of mysteries. Measurements of air pressure, wind speeds, thermodynamics and complex interactions of updrafts and downdrafts require expertise work in dangerous areas that often produce violent weather.
Tim Samaras was collecting scientific data when the large tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma suddenly changed direction in an unusual manner. He was not the only experienced chaser who was caught off guard that afternoon. GPS records show more than 50 storm chasers were in perilous locations at one time or another. My own chase team encountered a very large tornado. Fortunately, we arrived late from following another storm and were a few miles south when the killer tornado struck. Hopefully, we will eventually know what happened to Tim. I knew him, and he was a very professional and experienced chaser. I have yet to re-open emails we exchanged on occasion. It will take some time.
2: Profit and Self Promotion: The almighty dollar and ego mania may be the biggest “let’s get closer” seducer for those who have no “logical” purpose in getting close. Although most news stations and media outlets pay very little for footage now days, if your footage is dramatic and life threatening enough, you can make a profit. Gone are the days when a tornado shot from a mile away was rare and valuable. Try to sell that to a news station or print media today and they will laugh you out of town. Inexpensive, modern video cameras make it possible for anyone to record near death encounters with violent weather. Many chasers place multiple cameras in their vehicles to capture the bug-eyed, screaming action from multiple angles. In my opinion, news outlets who broadcast unarguably reckless footage only encourage more moronic behavior. Some argue such footage also helps educate people by scaring them to death. Some chasers have specialized in getting too close. The exposure through social media such as You Tube and Facebook can generate a substantial following and income. I should point out that I’m a journalist myself with a large social media following based on severe weather coverage although I’m not one of the close-up chasers.
3: News Stations: First off, live television coverage of severe weather events saves countless lives. The majority of on-air meteorologists do a fantastic job under incredible pressure. But there is a disturbing trend I’ve seen escalate over the last few years. Local news stations live and die by ratings. They spend millions on billboards, Internet and television advertising promoting the “best up-close” severe weather coverage. Most go live when the poop hits the fan. This has unfortunately trickled down to storm chasing. (Not the poop but the risky behavior). Getting “spotters” or news crews as close to a tornado as possible sells. Not only local viewers, but viewers around the world tune in for live Internet coverage. Stations often use the excuse they need chasers to get as close as possible in order to let people know there is an actual tornado.
In reality, tornadoes can be viewed and tracked from a safe distance. It’s just not as dramatic. I see a dangerous trend here. Everyone now expects live, close-up coverage. People may eventually delay or refuse seeking shelter in order to “see” or “confirm” there is an actual threat. Potential victims may decide on shelter choices by haphazardly guessing tornado strength by visual means. I don’t need to know if a tornado is a “wedge,” multi-vortex,” or pink colored. They are all potentially deadly and can change in intensity, speed and direction in seconds.
4: Thrill Seekers: Generally collage aged individuals or “teams” who simply get close for no reason other than the thrill of it — to capture death defying stunts near tornadoes. We have all seen the footage on television and social media sites. Some of these individuals claim to be conducting “research” or use other wacky reasoning to legitimize their chasing — but have no solid purpose or proof when closely examined. A few admit straight up they chase for thrills. In fairness, some do act as spotters, assist at disaster scenes or contribute footage for educational purposes, but such contributions are usually a secondary priority. The media is often fooled into believing they are chasing for a higher purpose. It’s my opinion, unfortunately, the death rate for these individuals will increase as the public and media’s lust for extreme footage increases.
5: Photography & Film Making: Professional photographers and journalists (like me) and filmmakers often photograph tornadoes for assorted purposes, including editorial and commercial interests. I for one do not need to get within a mile or so of a tornado. The shots I need are best accomplished from an overall perspective. I can always use a longer lens to zoom in. In addition, wedge-shaped, ground hugging, violent tornadoes generally do not make good images. I should note, as with any pursuit of extreme weather, things can go wrong and even the most careful chaser can get into trouble. I’ve been quilty of this myself, especially in the early days when there were no laptops with live radar. Roads can end without warning or turn to mud, secondary tornadoes can form with no warning, traffic jams can close escape routes and vehicles can suffer mechanical issues, just to name a few. It is very important to note the differences between chasers who are cautious and have close calls vs. chasers who purposely place themselves in harms way.
6: Storm Spotting: Storm spotters are a critical link in the severe weather warning process. Hail size, winds, flooding, damage reports and tornadoes need to be reported by experienced spotters. Even the most advanced radar cannot confirm a tornado is on the ground. A human or remote camera confirmation is important. Tornado warnings can be issued when preset, radar algorithms are met. Radar warnings must be taken seriously. People should not wait until they actually see a tornado to seek shelter if a warning is issued. Tornado reports are critical, but there is no need to be 50 feet away to know it’s a dangerous tornado — as there is no need to be 50 feet away from a lion to know it’s a lion. Experienced spotters cringe when they see such dangerous and unnecessary activity. However, most responsible storm chasers will call in a report, especially if there is a lack of spotters in the area, which is rare now days. Unfortunately, the term “spotter” is sometimes abused by chasers who have no intention of ever reporting a hazardous event.
Over the years, advancement in radar technology has provided substantial tornado warning lead times. Meteorologists can see tornadoes forming on radar and track their movement at street level. Radar can also show where debris is being pick-up and estimations of tornado width can be calculated. Live helicopter views and traffic cameras can also be used to track tornadoes safely. Paid law enforcement and firefighters can also relay reports. It’s important to note storm spotting was conducted safe and efficiently from a distance before the recent rash of close-up lunacy.
Live to chase another day.
Warren Faidley is a 25 year storm chasing veteran, extreme weather survival expert and journalist. He is a media consultant for major media outlets including Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and The BBC. He has been acknowledged by the National Weather Service for his contributions to public safety. See his complete biography here.
I have received multiple reports that three storm chasers were killed during Friday’s tornado strike in El Reno, Oklahoma.
More news as it becomes available.
I have returned safe and sound from the Moore Oklahoma EF5 tornado disaster.
Many thanks are in order over the course of the last three days: Fox News and Neil Cavuto for going live so quickly and allowing me to join the discussion about what to do as the tornado was tearing through Moore.
Everyone in Moore, but especially, the local residents. Some offered me bottles of water…. as they stood in piles of debris of what use to be their homes.
Back in Amarillo today. Looks like the severe weather threat is moving west for tomorrow and beyond.
I’ll post more images soon.
I am in Moore, Oklahoma – covering the devastating tornado disaster.
Amount of destruction is incredible. Some exceptionally sad stories unfolding as the search for victims slows after dark. I helped with search and rescue for a brief period before daylight faded. The extensive area and level of destruction is making searches very difficult.
I’m going to grab a few hours of sleep and resume helping and/or covering the story.
Media interests should contact me via the contact links.
Go tornado or monsoon chasing with Warren! Now is the time to book your private storm chasing experience or extreme storm photography instruction with Warren! Dates are still open for 2013 and now booking for 2014. Why chase in a crowded van full of people when you can have a one-on-one experience of a lifetime with the world’s top rated storm chaser!
Witness the violent twisters of Tornado Alley or get the best seat in the house to photograph the breathtaking lightning storms of southeastern Arizona. We have sold out for the last five years so book now!
See complete information at Storm Chaser Tours.
Tactical Storm and Disaster Survival Instruction
“Its been my experience that most people *think* they know what to do when threatened by extreme weather. The rising death toll from violent weather often proves this is not true.” Warren Faidley.
Put Warren’s 25 year history of pursuing and surviving some of the planet’s most violent weather to work for you! Tactical storm and disaster survival instruction is now available for your organization or business. Perfect for companies with employees who must work in active hazards or post-disaster situations. Warren can customize a survival course based on specific threats. Warren has trained everyone from US military personnel to insurance adjusters. See more information here.
Support Warren’s Projects – Get something in return!
Today starts the main kickoff for my 2013 Storm Chase Team fund raiser. My work is totally self-supported. I do not receive funds from sponsors, grants or other sources. Unlike chasers who beg for money just to fatten their egos, pockets and throw big parties, 100% of the funds I receive from backers are used for direct chase costs like fuel, emergency equipment, lodging, communications and public service expenses. I often assist storm spotters with training and certification. All safety and educational information I share, free images, publications, PSA’s and footage I provide to groups like FEMA, The American Red Cross and The National Weather Services are self-funded. Over the last 20 years, I have supplied over $100,000 (non-tax deductible) in free images, footage and services. I am not asking for charity. All backers receive items or services valued above the suggest amounts. Now is the time to become an official backer of a great cause — while getting something in return. Thanks to those backers who have recently contributed!
All backers of $5.00 or more will receive a link to print a free, large quality poster featuring 25 years of Warren’s breathtaking storm images. (Similar to this poster.)
All backers of $25.00 or more will receive the poster link and a DVD with 25 Royalty Free weather and storm images, featuring some of Warren’s most graphic work. All royalty free — never pay additional charges for any use!
All backers of $50.00 or more will receive the poster link and a DVD with 50 Royalty Free weather and storm images.
All backers of $75.00 or more will receive the poster link and a DVD with 75 Royalty Free weather and storm images.
All backers over $100.00 or more include a personal thank you call from Warren, the poster link and a DVD with 100 Royalty Free weather and storm images.
All backers of over $500.00 or more will receive the above perks and a $600.00 off discount on any of Warren’s future “Storm Tours” (limit two per backer), or a certificate good for $600.00 in footage and/or image licensing fees.
All backers of $2,750 or more will include the above items (minus the chase / licensing discounts) and a personal visit from Warren to your school, college, fund raiser, corporate function, safety training, party or home. (Transportation and lodging costs not included. Single day event). Email for details.
Ultimate Chase Team Member Backer. $24,999. If you have ever considered booking a chase adventure with me, this is the deal of the century! The price of this package includes 25 days of storm chasing with me. You pick the available dates, for my tornado and/or monsoon adventures. Package is good for three years and I only require a 50% deposit. The remaining funds are paid when you actually chase. Email for details.
Please allow extra processing time (up to 4 to 6 weeks) to distribute material items due active chasing. You may also donate and request no gift. For donations over $100.00, your name (if desired) will be posted below.
I am now accepting reservations for my July 2013 Monsoon / Storm Photography Courses.
Courses start on July 6 and run each Saturday through August 17. The courses are semi-private and cover all aspects of storm photography. We will also chase monsoon lightning storms in the PM hours. The cost is $1,500.00 per person. Makes a fantastic gift!
Available on a first come basis. The last three years have sold out.
See Stormchaser Tours for complete information.
Warren is now scheduling on-site storm safety and survival seminars for private and governmental interests. Have Warren design a customized safety course for your town, group, trade show or company. Contact Warren’s office here.
This week’s blogs sponsored by
Fenix Flashlights – Storm Survival Expert Warren Faidley Approved!