Update: Following the tragic events of May 31, 2013 I posted an editorial blog in which I explained my concerns and opinions about storm chasers getting too close to tornadoes.
The paragraph at the top of the original blog clearly noted, “There were two stories from El Reno.” “One about the Weather Channel accident,” and the other about the loss of life. The theme of the original post was about The Weather Channel’s accident, and my concern over chasers who are continually publicized for getting too close. I have nothing personal against those chasers who have decided that getting close is their thing. What upsets me most, is the hypocritical way the media uses close up chasers to boost their ratings, while rarely presenting the other side of the story. And yes, I’ve ranted about specific chasers and media outlets, but I’m always very careful to make it clear that although such people and outlets “may” encourage or promote dangerous chasing techniques, I have no evidence that any specific event (death or injury) is connected to a specific entity. In other words, no chaser(s) or media outlet had anything to do with the chaser deaths in Oklahoma as far as I know. The chasers made their own decisions. For those who have tried to create drama by suggesting I “blamed a specific chaser or media outlet,” for what happened, shame on you.
A few social media scoundrels and avid fans of close up chasers, copied and re-posted the blog without the original header, the follow-up clarifications, or posted selected paragraphs and made up their own opinions. I saw several copies that were completely altered and re-posted, credited to me. I pulled the blog(s) and made personal contact with those who might have been offended. Although I hold firm on my feelings about media portrayals of “close-up” chasing and the potential problems such glorification creates, I admit I should have done a better job of separating the two events and for that I am sorry. The timing was horrible. My only desire was to make storm chasing safer.
The bottom line is that we all learned from the tragedy.
All “official” blogs or comments are posted on this site, Twitter or Facebook. Please disregard bogus posts or blogs credited to me posted elsewhere on the Internet.
June 5, 2012
Why Get so Close to Tornadoes?
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. I make no statement of fact that any specific chaser(s) influences anyone to chase in a dangerous or risky manner. 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 should note that nothing herein or elsewhere where I have posted or blogged suggests that any outside source or person(s) had any connection to Tim’s or any chaser’s injury or death.
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 without contradictory opinion, could encourage more moronic behavior. Some argue such footage also helps educate people by scaring them to death. 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.
The Weather Channel’s “Tornado Hunt” Vehicle seen crumpled in a field off highway 81 following the El Reno, killer tornado. Mike Bettes and two crew members sustained non-life threatening injuries. Bettes later admitted his mistake — something more chasers should do.
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. It’s my unfortunate opinion that 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 guilty 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.
I shot this F3 rated tornado along with chaser Tom Willett near Laverne, OK in May of 1991. We could have moved closer at one point, buy why?
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.
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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.