This weekend, I thought that one of my worst fears had come to fruition. I watched in horror the photographs of a major network’s tornado chase vehicle mangled. I knew some of the people in that car personally. Thankfully, they were ok.
Sunday morning, June 2nd, I learned that 3 colleagues that I didn't know (Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young) perished while chasing the El Reno Tornado. Judging by the numerous testimonials, these men were well-respected by many colleagues. While the circumstances surrounding the tragedies are still unknown, the context of the event created several thoughts in my mind that I want to share as a general member of the weather community. The tone of this commentary is to stimulate conversation rather than levy blame or describe the world only from my perspective.
First, I want to send sincere thoughts and prayers to each of the families of this tragedy. I also want to offer the sympathy and prayer for members of the public that became victims during routine daily living.
This commentary does not reflect the opinion or viewpoint of the American Meteorological Society. The statements herein are written from the perspective of the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Geography and Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program, University of Georgia.
1. Good chaser, Bad Chaser?: It will be tempting to latch onto the deaths of Tim Samaras and colleagues and label them in a “unified” batch with all storm chasers. However, a review of Tim’s biography confirms that he was engaged in research to advance our knowledge of tornadic storms (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/tim-samaras/) and was a key element of TWISTEX. There are numerous colleagues and research programs (e.g., VORTEX2 (http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/projects/vortex2/) that involve storm chasing and field work. Our knowledge of tornadic storms and how to respond to them have undoubtedly been helped by these activities. However, I am on record as being concerned about some aspects of the contemporary chasing culture and the “trivialization” of the tornado threat. Just last week, I tweeted that “some are trivializing the tornado threat.” That tweet was inspired 2 photos seen on social media. One photo was of chasers doing silly poses with a tornado in the immediate background, and the other was a photo of a line of roughly 10 drivers pulled over taking pictures of a tornado with their camera phones. My first-order fears have centered around (1) the emergence of a generation of inexperienced, thrill seekers; (2) ratings “hype” and desire for the most dramatic image or video for use in local or national media (“are we getting too close” and does “informative journalism” require a storm chasing vehicle in 2013”); and (3) chaser convergence hampering emergency response and rescue.
As someone that studies urban climate, a secondary concern is what I will call the “dartboard effect”. As urban areas grow, it is increasingly likely that urban areas will be affected by tornadoes. Congested urban transportation networks will present different challenges, in chase scenarios, than open, remote roadways in rural/desolate areas. Another secondary concern is that I am seeing some students at entry collegiate levels that “know” chasing but are deficient in or even averse to fundamental mathematical, physics, and atmospheric science foundations required to be a meteorologist (see American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) guidelines at http://www.ametsoc.org/policy/guidline_term_meteorologist.html).
Over the years, I have discussed the “chasing issue” with colleagues that I respect as scientists, professors, and friends. Thankfully, this is a group of colleagues that can disagree and still remain friends and collegial. The “good, experienced chaser vs. reckless cowboy chaser” is a central tenet of their argument. I understand this position. These friends make very valid points about the new knowledge gained from chasing storms, the spirituality of the “experience”, and the value of experiential learning outside of the classroom and textbook. I concur with them to a point because I also like to use different teaching methods. I am certain that firefighters gain valuable knowledge from entering burning building during training sessions. However, carrying forth this analogy, should an inexperienced citizen run into the building for a “rush”, “to get cool pictures of the fire”, or to see who can get closest to a backdraft. Mike Smith, a respected colleague in our field, makes a great point that we need to consider whether we are trying to “out-extreme” each other.
This week we have seen how the force of nature endangers any level of experience. In no way am I advocating that “chasing” be eliminated, but I do believe a conversation is needed so that our colleagues’ life devotion to improving knowledge is not in vain. Mike Smith notes that chasing began in the early 1970s. In 40 years, we had not seen, to my knowledge, a direct loss of life due to the weather elements of the chase itself. I think that is not by coincidence. Colleague Mike Smith (see link) has offered some thoughts and a history of chasing that are worthy of consideration. (http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2013/06/twisting-goal.html?spref=tw).
2. To legislate or not to legislate: I am already hearing discussion of legislation limiting chaser activity, requiring licenses, or mandating that chasing only be for research purposes. Personally, I do not know how this could be enforced and don’t believe that it should be done. Further, if someone is licensed to “chase,” it still does not remove the inherent dangers that I articulated earlier in the commentary. Citizens have every right to the roadways, and I could foresee very strong challenges from a personal liberties/”government over-reach” standpoint. I suppose one could apply logic similar to what is seen with mandatory hurricane evacuations or snow emergencies. However, I am personally not familiar with how punitive such violations really are. I think some hard questions will be raised in due time. Is there a net effect on emergency response times? Should insurance companies have “riders” on life, auto, or medical insurance policies for chasers the way some policies are constructed for dangerous “at your own risk” activities like skydiving? Do administrators at institutions of higher learning that have “Storm Chase Classes” rethink them or strengthen the access requirement given potential liability issues?
3. Stay off the roads says the National Weather Service: As parents, we often say, “we can’t expect our kids to do certain things, if we don’t set a good example ourselves”. On the day of the El Reno tornado, the National Weather Service was “crystal clear” in warning the public to stay off the roads after 4 pm. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center also provides a wealth of guidance on tornado safety http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/ and so does the AMS Statement on Tornado Preparedness (https://www.ametsoc.org/policy/tornadopolicy2000.html, in the process of being updated). The advice at both of these sources is sound, yet many ignore it or do the exact opposite of the guidance. In the El Reno event, too many people were in cars/traffic, and several fatalities were in cars. This fact is a separate issue that must be a part of a broader discussion also. It is reported that some media outlets gave different advice than the National Weather Service. Harold Brooks (http://www.livingontherealworld.org/) and Matt Daniel (http://earthsky.org/earth/lesson-from-fridays-storm-deaths-when-weather-is-bad-stay-home) have written excellent discussions on why tornadoes and cars don’t mix.
Concluding Thoughts: The bottom line for me is that technology and science gave us ample warning on the El Reno tornadic storms, but poor human decisions and unforeseen circumstances probably led to loss of life. In an era where some question the value of social science research, this event (and events like Superstorm Sandy) scream loudly and clearly for more research on how the public consumes information, perceives warning/threat information, understands social vulnerability, and uses information communicated by the media and other officials.
Tim Samaras and the public fleeing the storm both believed they were doing the right thing. Research on tornadoes, including some chasing and fieldwork, may ultimately save lives. However, with El Reno, sufficient warning still wasn’t enough to save lives.
We need to have the productive not divisive conversations with all parties involved rather than a "hammer" approach. One of the values of organizations like the AMS or National Weather Association is that they provide forums for such exchanges. Let’s take advantage of the forthcoming AMS Broadcast Meteorology, NWA Annual Meeting, and AMS Annual meeting to have these discussions. Many of us are weather weenies at heart, we just have different perspectives in our love for the weather. Let’s turn them into strengths for our community and the next generation of meteorologists.