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The storm chaser dilemma and choice to sit out the May 31 Oklahoma City tornadoes

The tragic events of May 31 will be remembered for many reasons. At least 13 people died in the Oklahoma City area during tornadoes that day. Three of them were storm chasers — the first known chasers to die while actively chasing in the 50+ year history of the endeavor.

Related: Tim Samaras: Weather community remembers pioneering tornado chaser

These were not just any storm chasers, but among the most well known and most well respected. Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young were chasing professionals. Their mission was science and they sought to gain more knowledge about these deadly events in an effort to better protect others.

Related: The deadly Oklahoma storm that chased down the storm chasers

A reckless tornado culture?

Before the information about storm chaser deaths came to light early on June 2, much conversation was underway about the decisions the chase community and others made that day. Many of the questions revolve around what might be described as a reckless chaser culture.

We won’t argue that there are not chasers who disregard both their own safety and the safety of others, often for what seems like perceived personal glory from being the first to post a video of any given tornado.

It is incorrect to label all chasers under this umbrella. In fact, almost every chaser we’ve met out in the field dislikes that behavior. In storm chasing, it is quite easy to accidentally disregard your own safety though, if you forget to take everything into consideration.

Storm chasing decisions on May 31

The morning of May 31, while on our 2-week storm-chasing trip to the Plains – we agreed that odds were good it could end up too dangerous to try to chase  the day’s storms anywhere near the Oklahoma City metro. This is a consideration that should be made for the chaser and the lives around the chaser. El Reno is an attractive staging area while chasing, and we had even staged there the day before to catch storms which later fired to the north.

We chose not to do so again that Friday because the best storm environment was forecast to be over Oklahoma City, rather than to the north or south. We knew that if a storm developed over us or to our west it would likely track right into the metro area. Given the extreme instability and other ingredients in place, the potential for an unusually difficult storm was high.

This is something we wanted to avoid at all costs. Especially when we took into consideration that people may try to flee in their vehicles given recent events, in addition to the general Friday afternoon rush hour traffic.

May 31 was basically a worst-case chasing scenario given the storm evolution in conjunction with a major metropolitan area on edge. Chasers who did not end up getting directly hit by the tornado for various reasons often found themselves stuck in traffic while trying to get out of the area as it moved along.

The El Reno tornado had a rare, but not unprecedented, path as it jogged south and north while the parent storm continued its mostly-easterly trajectory. This storm also produced many short-lived suction vortices underneath the large parent mesocyclone. These can appear suddenly and can be quite strong.

While many tornadoes follow a fairly predictable path, this tornado’s erratic movement and behavior was a contributing factor to why so many chasers were caught off-guard. The fact that it tracked eastward down I-40 and toward Oklahoma City after making a sudden jump north sealed the deal of scary situations.

Such unpredictability was not at the forefront of our thoughts while making the decision to not chase the storm, but it is something to take into consideration for ANY tornado.

When chasing gets competitive

In our two-week chase vacation, which concluded early due to significant “success,” we missed several tornadoes by playing it safe. With many of the tornadoes we saw, we found ourselves further away than a good number of chasers.

Timelapse of the Bennington, Kansas tornado of May 28, 2013. (Mark Ellinwood)

As relatively new chasers to the Plains (this was our third year to go out for two weeks), we do not claim to know all the ins and outs of the community or how any person within it makes their decisions. We do not fault people for getting closer than we do, though it is hard to understand why videographers or photographers get close enough to have debris falling anywhere near them let alone impact them.

The people we have met chasing are almost all awesome. Weather nerds unite! These folks range from professional meteorologists, to savvy hobbyist, to – unfortunately – people who don’t really know what they are doing or why. One thing they all have in common is a love of the storm, and in a lot of cases the science behind the storm.

A competitive sector of the chase is very real and very detrimental. We have witnessed chasers in jacked-up trucks with their names emblazoned on the side put themselves at great danger for seemingly little reason. We have seen even rural roads congested to the point that a safe exit might not be available if needed. The road or “chaser convergence” issue in the Plains is almost entirely a central Oklahoma one, though it also bleeds into Kansas.

Just the day prior to the El Reno tornado we were on congested roads in poor visibility across portions of north-central to northeast Oklahoma. While not a metro area like Oklahoma City, it was easy to see how the traffic could have become a problem if a large tornado dropped.

On May 27, when Sean Casey’s team intercepted a large tornado, we sat back on the storm from a distance when we saw a major rotation signature show up on radar, but rain totally obscured our view. Others proceeded into the zone where a tornado was likely, and a few “lucky” ones got underwhelming pictures of it that they shared on Twitter.

Chasing safety: confronting complacency

When it comes to approaching a tornado, the feeling of safety or the fact that you had remain safe the last 20 chases is not a guarantee of safety. Storm chasing is inherently dangerous. A storm chaserism used to be, “no one has died doing this.” Sadly, that’s no longer the case.

Our friend Amos Magliocco has been chasing since the “good old days.” He’s chased with many of the pioneers of the current activity — though arguably mainstream chasing has morphed into something it did not used to be. Tim Samaras was a true standout in the field, but he used to be among the only folks (most with similar missions)  out there dodging ticks on the side of the road after an 8-hour car ride to nowhere.

In 2007, Amos and his chase partner Eric Nguyen got hit by a tornado in Tulia, Texas. As recent as then it was not considered cool to be hit by a tornado by anyone. In fact, the way Amos describes it, we’d be tempted to say he felt more embarrassed by it than anything.

Amos was among those who decided not to chase near Oklahoma City on May 31, and his words likely helped us stay true to our initial thoughts (truth be told, we almost turned to go north to the storm as it quickly ramped up).

After the jarring news of Samaras’ death hit the chaser community, we spoke to Amos about why he was personally reluctant to go into the area that day. He said, “It wasn’t just because of a standing rule about Oklahoma City, but also because of the aftermath of Moore. I thought it was primed for panic.”

Ground truth: The importance of witnessing a tornado’s destructive force

The morning of May 31, we found ourselves with some extra time before thunderstorms were supposed to “initiate” (or develop and subsequently explode). While conflicted about doing so, we used this time to drive through parts of Moore.

Pictures or video can never do a scene like that justice.

As unnerving as it is to see in person, it is something every chaser should see close up. The total destruction combined with unfathomable randomness is incredible. There are very clear signs throughout the damage path of what can happen if your close play with a big tornado goes wrong in a big way.

Seeing the damage in Moore, then driving through congested suburban roads at midday, was perhaps the ultimate guide to whether we should run to the zone of highest tornado ingredients, or whether we should try to find a secondary “target.”

That type of decision-making may be lacking in less-experienced chasers or general weather watchers. Others might just disregard it.

While this is certainly not the reason a renowned researcher like Tim Samaras ended up in the wrong spot, it is perhaps one reason that so many others (and there were a lot of them) were also impacted by the tornado. Prior to that day it was rare for any chaser to take a direct hit from a tornado, at least if you don’t drive a street tank.

A storm’s magnetic draw

As chasers, we all go into dangerous storms and should understand the potential consequences. We also should remember that storms are ultimately and inherently unpredictable. Bad things happen despite our best intentions to avoid them.

Even among the “low key” (which we believe we are) chasers, in the adrenaline rush (yes, there is one…) that goes with storm chasing we all sometimes lose sight of the unpredictability. Additionally, once you see a giant supercell roaming the Plains and watch it drop a tornado in an open field, there is almost an irrational draw to see it again no matter where it is.

Storm chasing’s Mount Everest moment?

When pondering whether the May 31 tornado event will change storm chasing, Amos Magliocco made an interesting comparison.

He wondered if May 31 will impact chasing like the disaster on Mount Everest in 1996 did with climbing. Nine people died there in one expedition, the most ever at once. It was not anyone’s fault per se — an extra harsh storm moved in and did what storms do. But in prior times, those impacted would have been fewer and likely in better condition as a group to deal with it.

Amos argued that the event, “brought a whole new level of seriousness to the climb.”

Throughout the varied discussion about storm chasing, its usefulness, and the motives of those who do it, we must constantly remember there are many types of chasers. Barbara Boustead did a great job of explaining it in a blog post yesterday:

Meteorologists stream in to capture development and structure, and a glimpse of a possible tornado, for the sake of reporting as well as understanding storms. Some chasers simply feel the call of nature, much like someone who scales rock faces or skis off trail, to get as close to nature’s beauty and power as possible.

Upon hearing news of the chaser deaths, and who was involved, most chasers likely thought: “if it can happen to Tim, it can happen to me.”

Tim and his crew were always extraordinarily careful in some of the most dangerous tornado environments one can find. His and his team’s role in data gathering with probes put them much closer to a tornado than many, and he undoubtedly was more aware of that personal risk than anyone else could be.

As crippling a blow it is to the chaser community, and to everyone who may ever be impacted by a tornado to lose such a group, perhaps we can all remind ourselves how seriously Tim, Paul, and Carl treated the chase. With that, we can try to be continually more serious about it ourselves.

Mark Ellinwood is an Operational Meteorologist with MDA/EarthSat. James Hyde, Millersville University student studying geography-GIS and emergency management, chased with Ian and Mark this year and contributed to this post.