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Posted at 01:55 PM ET, 05/31/2011

Tornado chasing: On a downward spiral or providing public value?

Tornado chasing, largely limited to a small cadre of research scientists, photographers, and thrill seekers in the 1970s into the early 1980s, has transformed into a large and growing industry. Everyone wants to catch a glimpse of the action and these swirling vortices are swarming the TV networks and cyberspace - from reality TV to documentaries to movies to You Tube videos. They’ve even spawned a cottage tourism trade where you can fly to the Midwest and ride along with “expert” chasers.

Earlier today, Andrew Freedman wrote about “Our Tornado Voyeurism Problem” - i.e. our obsession with viewing these violent storms, potentially putting ourselves and even others in harms way. Andrew featured some of the scathing commentary about the recent direction of tornado chasing from research meteorologist and pioneering tornado chaser Charles Doswell.

But there is another point of view on proliferation of storm chasers...

A couple weeks ago, I caught up with WeatherData CEO Mike Smith and author of “Warnings: The true story of how science tamed the weather”. For all of the criticism leveled at the flourishing chasing industry, Smith hasn’t soured on it like Doswell.

“I believe it is a significant net benefit to society in general and the Great Plains in particular,” he said. “The storm chasing shows and, especially, the storm chase tour companies, I think ... give people an appreciation for the power and majesty of our atmosphere.”

Smith also said the Great Plains economy benefits from the annual influx of chasers. And he says many chasers have first-responder training and have made contributions in critical damage situations, including after the devasting EF-5 tornado in Greensburg, Kansas four years ago.

“Several storm chasers -- who were trained EMTs -- helped with (literally) pulling people out of the wreckage and getting them first aid,” he said.

Chasers may do their most important work when their video can be broadcast on live television (or over the internet) when a tornado threatens a populated region. Alabama ABC33/40 meteorologist James Spann credited local videographers with saving many lives by providing the station with footage of incoming tornadoes. He told Media Bistro: “If you can show a live tornado with a camera, there’s no doubt that people will react in a more urgent way.”

While an advocate for the chasing industry, Smith cautions against chasing “unless you are thoroughly trained and know what you are doing.” He recommends inexperienced chasers sign up for a tour with professionals.

POST SCRIPT, PART I: STORM CHASERS KILLED?

HAS A CHASER EVER BEEN KILLED BY A TORNADO?

Mike Smith told me that to his knowledge, a chaser has never been “directly killed by a tornado” but some have died in traffic accidents in pursuit.

POST SCRIPT, PART II: OUTTAKES FROM DOSWELL - DOWNWARD SPIRAL ARGUMENTS...

COLORFUL COMMENTARY ON THE PROBLEM OF CHASER CONVERGENCE - WHERE TRAFFIC JAMS DEVELOP DUE TO THE NUMBER OF CHASERS:

Rather establishing a connection to the natural world that we used to feel when experiencing a powerful storm, we find ourselves buried in a long line of chasers. It’s more like attending a sporting event than a feeling of joy at being embedded deeply in a living world. I regularly experience shame and concern at the behavior of some irresponsible chasers who do things that put all of us in danger. I now find myself wishing to escape the hordes whenever possible...

A RANT ON THE DECLINE IN QUALITY OF CHASER PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO:

I can’t say I have any wish whatsoever to seek to keep up with what chasing has become...

I look at the videos people claim are fantastic on FB [Facebook] but I see almost no quality video. Most of it is the “edgy” sort of “reality video” that’s all the rage these days. People cheering and having “stormgasms” while they bounce down some road on the way to a close encounter. In those close encounters, for the most part, the video sucks (by my standards). ... the standard for video is now to get the “dramatic” shot -- OMG! We’re in the $%#@ing tornado! We’re in the tornado! We’re in the tornado! -- even when the video shows clearly that they’re not in the tornado. Clearly, this reflects the fact that for most chasers today, it’s about them and not about the storms.

ON THE VALUE OF CHASERS AFTER TORNADOES STRIKE

....going into tornado-damaged areas to “help” is misguided. Most chasers are ill-equipped (both materially and in terms of training) to be of much assistance to first responders, so it’s likely that those who do this are only going to get in the way of professionals (i.e., first responders) and are likely to cause more harm than good. Further, these amateurs may be injured themselves -- there’s considerable danger in walking through piles of tornado debris, especially for untrained, ill-equipped folks -- thereby creating more work for the professionals. Chasers doing this may believe they’re helping, but it’s unlikely that they

By  |  01:55 PM ET, 05/31/2011

Categories:  Latest, Thunderstorms

 
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