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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 05/31/2011

Our Tornado Voyeurism Problem

During this tragic tornado season, we have been inundated with awe-inspiring videos of tornadoes ripping apart communities, from Joplin, Mo., to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Raleigh, N.C. – and places in between.

No doubt many of you have seen the ones that I’m talking about. There’s this one, for example...



...filmed by a motorist in Wilson, N.C., who tells his wife he loves her while filming from within the tornadic circulation, for no apparent reason. There’s also this video from Tuscaloosa, where a storm chaser got far too close to an EF5 monster, while listening to a meteorologist on the radio, warning people to get to shelter immediately...



...that video has more than 5 million views on YouTube.

I find these, and many other recent tornado videos, highly disturbing.

Now I don’t have any disdain for storm chasing, quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve tagged along on two major storm research projects, most recently two years ago when I wrote a series of stories for this blog and saw my first tornado – from a safe distance. But both times I was embedded with scientists who were conducting research aimed at improving tornado forecasts.

The tornado outbreaks during the past two months have propelled another breed of storm chaser - the idiotic amateur - into the limelight, raising many questions and concerns in the process.

While lives are being lost, many of the videos show amateur chasers cheering the unprecedented weather, too caught up in the thrill of witnessing Mother Nature at her rarest (and deadliest) to comprehend the decidedly grim reality of what is taking place.

On Sunday night, the National Geographic Channel aired a hastily put together documentary on the record tornadoes that occurred during April, “Tornado Swarm 2011.”

The documentary featured many of the viral videos, strung together with narration by actor Campbell Scott. Although this surely was not the producers’ intent, one thing became glaringly obvious by watching video after video of people recklessly ignoring tornado warnings and rushing to view tornadoes up close, while screaming phrases like “This is awesome!” and “I’ll never see anything like this again!” - this country has a growing tornado voyeurism problem, and it’s one which may lead many to learn the wrong lessons from the recent deadly scourge of twisters.

Call it the “YouTube Effect.” While they are sure to frighten some into taking more tornado precautions next time, these videos will very likely breed more amateur chasers who will run to the car when they hear tornado sirens, rather than heading for the basement.

The media bears some responsibility for this problem. For example, at no time during the National Geographic Channel documentary did the network point out the excessive risks the storm chasers were taking, or even perform the public service of reminding people what proper tornado safety measures are. Nah, that would take up valuable airtime, and might hurt ratings, right?

In one particularly appalling portion of the program, a chaser refuses to leave a spot that is directly in the path of the Tuscaloosa tornado, yelling at his chase partner, “I gotta see what it does to the trees… don’t ya wanna know what it does to the trees?”

What?! If I were the partner, I’m pretty sure I would’ve been less focused on the fate of the trees, and more so on grabbing the wheel and getting the heck out of there.

I’m not the only one to be disturbed by some of the recent behavior of storm chasers (and I’m using the broadest sense of that term, since there are many different types of chasers). In a recent blog post, Chuck Doswell, a tornado researcher at the National Severe Storms Laboratory who helped pioneer storm chasing for scientific purposes (and who is also an avid chaser in his spare time), lashed out at what he sees as an increasingly risk-taking chasing culture aimed at earning money and fame by selling TV footage or distributing it online through social media. The post generated an intense discussion between different generations of storm chasers that is worth reading if you’re curious about who tornado chasers are, and what motivates them.

I’ll leave you with portions of Doswell’s post that I found particularly thought provoking:

“Social media have revealed to me multiple videos so far this year of non-chasers caught up in these events who clearly have no clue about tornadoes, shooting video even as they come close to death. I also see videos posted from storm chasers whooping and hollering with excited joy about the spectacular things they’re seeing in their videos aired on social media (a public venue, after all) - quite evidently unconcerned about the feelings of those for whom these very same atmospheric events have turned their lives upside down.”

“Many of these videos are taken not by chasing hobbyists but by people who know little or nothing about storms, perhaps choosing to keep their cameras rolling in hopes of achieving fame and fortune, or for reasons of their own. They flirt with death and often have no idea what they’re doing. Why? Is it the accumulated effect of seeing videos on TV from storm chasers dancing on the edge of the precipice? How many people have died this year with video camcorders in their hands? How many will in the future? To what extent are we chasers responsible for that?”

Doswell continues:

“I find the public celebrations of storm chasers more disturbing and repulsive every year, when the outcome of these events can be so devastating to so many people. Chasing is a hobby - it’s not about contributing to society for most chasers - for many of the ‘new breed‘ of chasers, it’s about personal success, fame, and fortune. As time passes, it’s increasingly abhorrent to me to be associated with most chasers, whose egocentricity and superficiality are disgusting to me. They give little or nothing of value in return for their experiences but somehow have convinced themselves that they’re saving lives. Obviously, there are responsible storm chasers, but their fraction of the chase “community” seems to be decreasing as storm chasing rapidly becomes a ‘trash sport.’”

By  |  10:45 AM ET, 05/31/2011

Categories:  Thunderstorms, U.S. Weather, Latest, Freedman

 
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