By: Dorian J. Burnette
Note: The standard disclaimer regarding opinions applies to this discussion. These thoughts are based on my own experiences storm chasing and an accumulation of accounts from other chasers in the Plains.
In 1997, I was about to enter my final year of undergraduate study in meteorology and decided that if I was going to understand how theory intergrates with forecasting and warnings, then I had better do field work (a.k.a. storm chasing). I began storm chasing in 1997 along side Mark Bogner who had been storm chasing for years and was the first director of the University of Kansas Severe Storms Intercept Project. I found the integration of storm chasing with my undergraduate studies and the internship I had under Dave Freeman at KSNW-TV made operational meteorology "click" in a significant way. I continue to bring such field work integration into my own classroom as much as possible whether I am teaching meteorology or some other geoscience course because the Earth is outside and does not necessarily behave in the "ideal" or "simplified" fashion that textbooks often discuss.
All of my storm chases have contributed something new to my library of knowledge, and that includes the bust days (i.e., you go out into the field and see nothing). This is because a "case study" can be developed out of every storm chase. What conditions were right for severe thunderstorms? What conditions were limited? Did severe thunderstorms develop in the location you expected? Why or why not? The development of these case studies are important analogs that future forecasters can use for training. My purpose in storm chasing is totally in the name of science for aiding in the warning process, documentation, and education. I have no doubt that storm chasing allowed me to become a better meteorologist, and I love to share this with others. Often times I am out in the field with my own students and other friends and colleagues I have met along the way. I cannot stress enough though how important it is for storm chasers to have knowledge and respect for the severe thunderstorms they are chasing. Severe thunderstorms are deadly and destructive even when they are not tornadic! Anyone who chases with me has to read some essays regarding storm chasing ethics and safety. The following are the essays that I always take with me on every single storm chase, and I highly recommend them:
Unfortunately, there is an increasing amount of people chasing severe thunderstorms who are in it just for the thrill or to grab the "ultimate video." I would be lying if I said that I do not get excited on every storm chase. I am a meteorologist after all, and I continue to be impressed by the power of nature. I have also made my fair share of mistakes, and I am confident the atmosphere will be teaching me further lessons. However, the "yahoos" who cheer for a tornado going through a city, drive through private fields, and/or drive too close to a tornado in order capture the most breath-taking film (just to name a few), need to seriously consider why they are out in the field in the first place. This problem is magnified during times when tornadoes pass near large metropolitan areas, when a higher percentage of people chasing are not real storm chasers and have limited knowledge of severe thunderstorms.
There have been increasing, alarming reports of chasers getting too close to tornadoes (e.g., getting a little closer to the tornado despite the fact that debris is blowing across the roadway directly in front of them or even on their vehicle!). Some chasers will say they need to be that close in order to tell the TV station exactly where the tornado is. I have never heard such balderdash! You can easily phone into the station "I am three miles south of the town of xx observing a tornado about a mile to my northwest moving northeast." Today's storm tracking systems utilized by TV stations allow them to show where the chaser is in respect to the radar signature and in respect to various towns and cities. Thus, such an argument does not seem justified. I have also heard chasers complain about radar data being old. Sometimes radar sites can go down, but the fact of that matter is the radar image is always old. What it suggests to me is that some chasers are way too dependent on technology. I am certainly a tech geek and take a laptop, mobile phone, GPS, etc. into the field with me, but you have got to know the limitations with technology (see this discussion for further details). Finally, there is the problem of chasers who are getting close for the thrill of it and/or for the "ultimate video" to sell. This conveys a total lack of respect for the thunderstorms to me, and the time is coming when a storm chaser is going to be killed by doing this nonsense. Obviously, the issue of closeness is dependent upon the chaser, and the isolated close call comes along with storm chasing. I have certainly been too close before, and I didn't wait to bail out of there! However, it seems to me that some are pushing things well beyond the limit. Bottom line...there is no need to get overly close to a tornado...that is what the zooming capabilities of your camera and camcorder are for. The following essays are recommended for further reading:
Traffic has become an increasing problem during good storm events due to the number of chasers. I completely avoid chaser convergence like the plague in the heat of a storm chase. The problem is that an area packed with vehicles near a tornadic supercell has "death trap" written all over it. I absolutely do not like to encounter traffic in the heat of the storm chase, and I will go to great lengths to avoid it. I have no problem using dirt roads, and a lot of times I can be found on them rather than on a more "major" road. However, I will usually not stray too far away from a paved road because 1) better time can be made on paved roads and 2) dirt roads are no fun when they become mud roads. All I am attempting to do is minimize encounters with traffic.
Without a doubt storm chasing is not easy. There are many circumstances when storm chasers will drive long distances to see nothing but blue sky (I know I have...multiple times!). I have gained a great deal of knowledge, satisfaction, and enjoyment from chasing severe thunderstorms, and I love to be able to share this with others. Alas, for some it is not about the storms but about themselves, as Gene Moore described it, and I hope that these few bad apples will not spoil the bunch.