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‘More will die’: The ethics of up-close tornado chasing

A tornado rips through a residential area after touching down south of Wynnewood, Okla., on May 9. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

This story was originally posted on May 19, 2016. We are updating and republishing it in light of tragic news that three storm chasers died in a traffic accident while tornado chasing on Wednesday, March 28 (2017). While a tornado did not kill these chasers, the act of chasing can be implicated and the ethical issues raised in interview below are worth revisiting – especially as severe weather season is just getting started.

Three killed after two Weather Channel storm chasers crash into a third while pursuing tornado

Daring storm chasers have come perilously close to violent tornadoes last spring while acquiring some of the most dramatic storm scenes ever filmed.

But the videos have raised important questions about how aggressive chasers should be when they pursue these storms, whether for the thrill or for research.

How close is too close? Does “extreme” close-up video, obtained and sold by chasers and shared by media for profit, encourage copycat chasing that puts people’s lives at risk?

Prior to 2013, in decades of storm chasing, no chaser had ever been directly killed by a twister. They had either maintained a safe distance or been lucky.

But this all tragically changed  on May 31, 2013, when a massive twister — the widest ever recorded — took the lives of Tim Samaras, a widely respected chaser and storm researcher, his son, Paul Samaras, and chase partner Carl Young in El Reno, Okla.

The day that should change tornado actions and storm chasing forever

The death of the Samaras team led to soul-searching in the chaser community, and some acknowledged it was time to back away from these dangerous storms. Chaser Roger Edwards wrote the following after the tragedy:

Losing these respected friends and colleagues, who were as aware and conscientious about the behavior of violent storms as anybody, should teach us self-restraint. If that means backing off a few miles, so be it. Not even a scientific mission is worth one’s life. I’d rather have those guys here today than any of the data they ever collected — however meaningful and valuable it was.

Tim Samaras: Weather community remembers pioneering tornado chaser

Just three years have passed since the Samaras team’s deaths, and recent “extreme” close-up footage shows some chasers are again mustering the courage to run ever closer toward  the bears’ claws.

Reed Timmer, among the most well-known chasers, captured this hair-raising footage from Wray, Colo., on May 7:

Extreme up-close footage of a visually spectacular Colorado tornado

There are moments in the video (about 2:30 to 4 minutes in) in which it seems Timmer could reach out and touch the storm’s raging funnel.

Two days later, noted chasers Dick McGowan (Twitter) and Darin Brunin (Twitter) got so close to a tornado in Katie, Okla., that they are practically in the debris field of a farm being ripped apart (about 50 seconds into the video below; caution: strong language):

I reached out to Brunin and two other well-known chasers, Charles Doswell and Victor Gensini, to hear their views on the recent emergence of daring, up-close chase footage.

Doswell is a pioneering chaser and meteorologist, retired from the National Weather Service and University of Oklahoma, who has vigorously criticized “extreme” up-close chasing.

Gensini is a professor of meteorology at the College of DuPage, who leads chasing expeditions with students each spring.

Together, these three chasers reveal an interesting diversity of perspectives on some challenging questions.

Their responses to the questions follow, and were lightly edited for length and style.

Is there such a thing as being too close to a tornado? If so, how close is too close? Are the videos above too close?

Chuck Doswell: Yes, of course there’s such a thing! There’s no objective, quantitative measure for how close is too close, however. Every tornado is different. Being too close IS defined by the obvious: when you sustain injuries and/or damage from the tornado and/or its debris. I think the videos above are too close … for ME! I don’t find them all that interesting, actually, except perhaps for the compelling demonstration of how dangerous tornadoes can be.

Victor Gensini: I’m indifferent about the desire to get close to a tornado, or the motivations of why some chasers choose to get to the edge of danger. Personally, I try to stay at safe distances from tornadoes out of respect for the parent supercell’s ability to spawn satellite tornadoes that can form and dissipate extremely quickly.

Darin Brunin: People think we’re crazy at times when getting close, but we certainly don’t have a death wish. It’s all a judgement call in the moment, to be honest. We’re not out there to kill ourselves. If a tornado appears weaker visually, you can get closer while maintaining situational awareness and have an escape plan. If the tornado is large and violent, you just have to lay off and give more room for the storm to do its thing. That comes from the knowledge and experience we have in chasing.

Do you see ethical issues in “extreme storm chasing” and getting super-close? Do you think it encourages “copycat” chasing from those who may not appreciate the risks or have the experience to know where and when to bail?

Doswell: Yes, I see that very problem. Some of those “extreme” chasers argue that what others do is not their responsibility, citing other dangerous behavior being aired over the media. In some sense, that’s correct — no one is being forced to engage in dangerous behavior. But I know for myself that I’d be very much concerned if someone had been killed following my example. Of course, I don’t take such “extreme” risks, so that seems unlikely.

For the extreme chasers — I wish they’d consider it their responsibility to be responsible for those who might emulate them. If someone is killed copying what they’ve done, they’ll have that blood on their hands, in my opinion.

Gensini: There is no doubt in my mind that “copycat”-like activities are occurring. In reality, if someone chooses to back off from a storm and stay at a safe distance, there will always be someone willing to get closer and get the “money” shot. I do not blame or point fingers at chasers that choose to do this, and ultimately I cannot speak to their motivations (probably in search of money, fame, adrenaline, etc.).

Brunin: Dick [McGowan] and I love getting up close to tornadoes, and that’s our preferred method of chasing. Hopefully people might see a video like ours from the other day and decide against going out and trying to do that. Ultimately, you can’t keep anyone from driving on public roads and chasing. We just hope they educate themselves and stay further away from tornadoes until they get more experience and don’t put themselves in danger. The chaser crowds usually really thin out within a half mile of almost any tornado.

Do you fear more chasers are going to die? Has the chaser community learned from Tim Samaras?

Doswell: Yes, more chasers will die in tornadoes (or be killed in vehicle crashes while chasing). That seems inevitable. What’s gratifying is how uncommon it’s been. I can’t speak for the entire chaser community, but what I learned from the El Reno storm tragedy is that even a responsible, reasonably cautious chaser can be killed by the unexpected (and no one is ever ready for the unexpected — even I!). Unfortunately, from everything I’ve seen, the chasers who need to have learned from Tim’s death haven’t shown much indication they’ve learned a thing.

Gensini: Yes, more chasers are likely to die as more and more folks are now out chasing, but I would point out that the number of people killed from storm chasing is far less than many other hobbies!

Brunin: I’m surprised more chasers haven’t already died, and yes more will, especially from lightning strikes. It’s something that you have to accept the risks of before you even attempt to chase. Can you keep that from happening? I don’t think so but El Reno certainly made chasers take a few steps back on their approach, no doubt.

Do you think media organizations are irresponsible when they share up-close video? Do you think it’s okay if they include a disclaimer like, “No inexperienced storm chaser should ever get this close to such a dangerous storm and it’s debatable whether pros should even be so close.”

Doswell: Disclaimers cover behinds, I suppose, but they don’t actually work. Yes, media share in the need to be responsible. I understand that footage of wild, up-close, flying debris-filled tornadoes is virtually irresistible, but showing it repeatedly is irresponsible, in my view.

Gensini: This drama sells and is all over the news quickly, and these chasers get the attention they so very badly desire. There are untold stories of folks rushing to the nearest high-bandwidth internet connection after a tornado to upload and sell their footage to a broker or the highest bidder. I cannot fault the media for showing the footage that sells.

Brunin: I think there’s a bigger risk of the media showing people on their front porch filming tornadoes or non-chasers caught on roads taking on-the-fly videos with their cell phone cameras. You see those crazy videos pop up from the general public from time to time, but we also don’t know how many people have died trying to do the same thing. There was a good example of one of those videos showing up a few weeks ago in Fairdale, Ill., from a tornado in 2015.

Weather Gang A huge tornado killed his wife and destroyed their home. He filmed the whole thing.

I think there’s a general knowledge of people watching [professional] video like ours and realizing that we know what we’re doing.

Related reading:

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

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

Our Tornado Voyeurism Problem

Storm chasing goes mainstream: Is tornado voyeurism killing people?