It’s twister prime time. The April-June peak of tornado season has arrived. It should thus be unsurprising that tornadoes erupted across the Plains this past weekend.
Increasingly, whenever there are tornadoes, there are people are going to great extremes to both observe and document them. This is having consequences, putting more people in harm’s way. What can and should we do?
2012 tornadoes so far
AccuWeather recently ran an article called “Dying to Shoot Tornadoes.” They referenced an Indiana couple who, instead of immediately searching for shelter during the March 2, 2012 tornado outbreak, decided to film an approaching tornado before realizing it was headed right at them.
At the last minute, the couple raced to find a “safe” place in the center of the house with no basement. When the violent EF-4 tornado impacted the home, with winds between 166-200 mph, it was destroyed. The husband sadly perished, one of 40 that day (in the top-5 most deadly tornado days in March since 1950).
Then came the north Texas tornado swarm on April 3, one that’s been called the most filmed outbreak ever — a title sure to fall soon enough if it did not already Saturday (April 14).
Despite the imagery and talk of dangerous tornadoes, the outbreak in Dallas was comparatively small, and the majority of tornadoes were not that strong. Fortunately, no one died, but given the sheer number of people who again watched tornadoes pass them by from outside, rather than taking shelter, it might have been luck.
Two tornadoes are seen on the ground at once in Cherokee, Oklahoma on April 14, 2012. Via WXstreme Chase Team.
The April 14, 2012 outbreak, while targeting a region less densely populated, came on a Saturday - a day with people out and about, and , for many storm chasers, their first chance to go hunting this young season.
Considering the number of tornadoes — reports are over 100 (although it’s likely long-track tornadoes were reported multiple times) — we were fortunate to see a faily low casualty rate. Sadly, at least 6 died in a nighttime event in Woodward, Oklahoma. In this case, not seeing the threat was the gravest danger.
Tornadoes: the love/hate relationship
While the mass availability of photo and video capability — mixed with mobile Internet and breaking weather information access — has increased the odds of a tornado being found, ogled, and then broadcast to the world, the fascination with them is not new. Throughout modern American history, starting in colonial New England where settlers documented early their encounters, we’ve had a love/hate relationship with tornadoes.
Love... The pure power of nature. Hate... When it impacts humanity.
Are we not afraid? Research has found that instead of immediately heading to a shelter upon a tornado warning, many seek direct confirmation. This was heavily noted in the post-assessment of the Joplin tornado last year as a factor in the mass loss of life. Getting to proper shelter — even driving away from the tornado, though not officially suggested — can be the difference between life and death in strong or violent tornadoes.
Seeing is believing
In his “10 deadly sins of TV weather coverage,” legendary Alabama meteorologist James Spann notes that a live shot of a tornado is a very powerful image compared to a simple radar graphic when warning people in the area on air. It’s one thing to see a hook echo on radar. It’s another to see empty tractor trailers flung through the air or houses being ripped to shreds. When it comes to tornadoes, indeed, seeing is believing.
Text and second-hand evidence, while of importance particularly with regards to smartphones, cannot completely replicate a hard visual. If we cannot see a tornado causing destruction or on a path to do so on television (or via Twitter, Facebook, etc.) before it impacts, we may be more likely to want to assure ourselves that it is or is not coming with our own eyes. Of course, once seen, the power of nature can be alluring.
A telling video surfaced from Indiana in March. As the violent long-track southern Indiana EF-4 approached (and warning information blared in the room), the scene proved too gripping for the homeowners to turn away from. Once the tornado passed the line of site of the videographer, she headed to the other side of the house to keep watch, all while telling others to come see how beautiful the tornado was.
Upon next sight of the twister, her expressions quickly change from astonishment to fear. “Oh my God, that’s a car!” she exclaims before running to the basement. Must not have seen the movie Twister.
YouTube Video: Pekin Tornado 2012
There’s little question that, social media, Web requests for user generated content, and even a pop culture aspect to tornadoes in recent times will continue to push individuals who have the ability to capture nature’s drama to do so. All one has to do is follow a few dozen professional or amateur weather aficionados on Twitter and watch how many tornado videos, some including chasers cheering killer storms on, are shared during and after the fact with attention-grabbing headlines like “AWESOME,” “Wish I was there,” and so forth.
I won’t say I don’t agree: tornadoes are amazing. I spent some of my teenage years miles from the recent tornadoes near Dallas and was immediately hooked after seeing one there. For full disclosure: I’ve been storm chasing, and I’m planning on taking a multi-week trip to the Plains again in a few weeks time. I even recently randomly decided to start a website to examine tornadoes in my free time.
Entertainment value vs. education/safety
But, still, one has to at least wonder about the message sent by treating tornadoes as a source of virtual entertainment. For example, late one evening earlier this month, a multi-vortex tornado from Kennedale, Tx. the day prior hit the rounds. Out of dozens of tweets and messages about the close-encounter with a highway-crossing tornado, I only caught one which said the chaser was perhaps dangerously close, noting apparent sounds of debris hitting the car.
These events are as good of times for teaching about tornado safety as they are for talking about how amazing the debris cloud was.
Professional storm chasers vs novices
Conflating novice “thrill-seeker” storm chasers (and/or people who encounter tornadoes by chance and respond questionably) with practiced and/or “professional” storm chasers, may give a bad name to experienced chasers who are working to better understand these storms and provide visual confirmation to enhance warnings. While contemplating this piece, I had an e-mail conversation with veteran storm chaser Amos Magliocco.
He is based in north Texas and has been chasing since the early-days of the “sport.” Despite not being a trained meteorologist, he is well-known in chaser circles, has National Weather Service (NWS) spotter training, respects the power of storms, edits the Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology, and has witnessed countless tornadoes. As with other chasers, his curiosity turned into a pursuit of not just experiences of a lifetime but a further understanding of nature’s fury.
One of many particularly salient points he made included descriptions that are perhaps the heart of chasing historically. He wrote, “[storm chasers] provide an ocean of data, field observations, drove the science for decades and still do. Young chasers become the tornado scientists of the following decade. Chasers are often the backbone of the warning system outside densely populated urban areas.”
Earlier this year, acclaimed storm chaser Andy Gabrielson was killed on return from a chase in Texas. His tragic death came at the hands of a drunk driver and not a tornado. He’d seen probably hundreds of those and survived to tell the tale. So do thousands of other tornado chasers who live in, or journey to, well known tornado zones every year.
The incredible outpouring from the storm chaser community in the aftermath of Andy’s death told at least two stories. First, this is not a group used to losing one of its own. According to long-time chasers, none have died from tornado impact. Secondly, this is a group committed to what brings them all together, and that’s the observation and self-education about storms that just happen to be dangerous, particularly if not understood.
Storm chasing’s future in the mainstream
Yes, some ways in which chasing has evolved as it hits “mainstream” are less than desirable. When long-time chasers and respected meteorologists alike publicly speak out about the problems with untrained chasers and/or individuals not adhering to the rules of the road, often in concert with “competitive chasing,” some aspects of the hunt may be in need of change. There’s even been word of police in places like Oklahoma setting up roadblocks to try to curtail some of these behaviors.
The fascination with tornadoes seems destined to continue, and there’s no sign that technology to help find and capture them on digital media is going to disappear.
As potential witnesses to these events, whether homeowner or storm chaser, having an action plan and also a true understanding of how tornadoes behave or can do, is crucial to survival in the face of one. When combined with increasingly early signaling and warnings, as well as other potential changes to how we react when one’s on the way, the odds of dying when even the strongest of tornadoes threatens can be lowered significantly.
P.S. Mississippi State is currently running a survey on warnings. Filling it out might be at least one additional step toward perfecting that system. https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/FZ9QGG9