Posted by: pyeager | October 30, 2009

Are Storms Most Important Thing to Chasers?

Since we’re in the second severe weather season, perhaps it’s appropriate that I talk about storm chasers for a second time. If you read my earlier post (Storm Chasers–Scientists or Thrill Seekers), you might not be surprised to hear me question the motives of storm chasers.

Competition or Science?

While I watch some shows because of the weather (Deadliest Catch–Weather Fish Tales), I usually don’t watch storm-chasing shows, such as TLC’s Storm Chasers. I did see much of the “Bigger in Texas” episode this week, however.

Perhaps it was just the way the show was edited, but it seems as if beating the other storm chaser was as important (or more important) than the supposed science of storm chasing. Editing makes the show. It takes countless hours on the Plains to produce an hour of action for storm chasers. For instance, storm chaser Sean Casey has been chasing for nine years because he wants to make a movie about tornadoes; if it’s for one film (I’m not sure that it is), then there has been plenty of days with no storms, plenty of failed chases, and countless hours of wasted time on the road; otherwise, there would certainly be a movie by now. Storm chasing is much more boring than is indicated by the show.

Regardless of the editing, there was whining about how the other person was “dominating” and whining about how one person imitated another’s vehicle. There was concern about what the other person was doing. It might all have been simple jealousy since some chasers are better than others, but it set a tone of competition, not science.

That might make for better television; in fact, at the end of each episode, perhaps one storm chaser should be voted off the Plains (Joe, You’re storms have dissipated; please pack your radars and return to Seattle), but it’s not a great show for people more interested in the weather than hype.

–Paul Yeager

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Responses

  1. “Storm chasing is much more boring than is indicated by the show.”

    Exactly. I haven’t watched these shows, but I know this statement is 100% accurate. I’ve had the opportunity to go on multiple 10-day storm chases in the past. You spend the vast majority of the time sitting around. Consider that tornado-producing storms don’t often begin forming until 4-6 pm. Up until then, you’re waiting for something to pop and hoping you aren’t too far away. I’ve chased a total of about 30 different days in my life and I’ve seen four tornadoes – all on the same day within the same cell.

    I won’t get started on the TV shows as I wouldn’t want my comment to run longer than the actual post. Let’s just say those guys are generally out to help TV ratings and not the field of meteorology.

    As far as the competition to catch tornadoes, that does exist, to an extent. I’ve witnessed it first-hand. It’s really kind of sad, if you ask me.

    I’m not sure if this is in your next book, Paul, but if you want a good story, look at storm chasing before and after the movie Twister. It’s amazing what one movie did to change the landscape of what was otherwise a less-congested scientific and educational experience. Boy, do I sound like an old curmudgeon.

    • Thanks for the insight, Steve.

      While I mentioned Twister in the book–if you consider mocking a “mention,” I didn’t talk specifically about the dramatic increase in chasing tornadoes that resulted from it.

      What I’d be interested in knowing–and you’d be a great source since you’ve done some chasing–is what specific scientific information are storm chasers gathering to assist with the understanding of tornadoes? There has been so much progress with radar information, computer forecast models, and improved data to better forecast tornadoes–what are the storm chasers doing to help meteorologists understand and forecast storms?

      I think many of them just want to see storms up close and get some good video.

      Paul

      • When we were chasing, it was for educational purposes. I can tell you we learned a lot about how to apply what was discussed in the classroom to a real life situation. Several students said those 10 or 11 days taught them more than four years of classroom work. That may be a slight overstatement, but it gives you an idea of the value they place on that experience.

        While out on the Plains, we came across mobile Doppler radar vehicles. The University of Oklahoma has done a lot of work with data gathered from these tools. Also, Tim Samaras and his famous Devo-esque pod have tried to gather information from inside a tornado. Essentially, all this research is to understand how tornadoes form. We have a good idea about the environment needed for severe storms – even distinguishing a favorable supercell environment from an environment likely to produce a squall line. We have some ideas about what is needed for a tornado to form, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. If these researchers can gather quality data, we might be able to know how a tornado forms and better predict when the will form.

        Ultimately, it’s about saving lives and property. Warning times have improved dramatically, but they could be better. Certainly there are people out there for the thrill and nothing more. Unfortunately, they often get their faces on camera. There are a lot of scientists trying to conduct research and better understand the processes by which supercells and tornadoes form, but they don’t always get the press.

        So, yes, it might seem that a lot of storm chasers are just having fun and seeking a thrill. And many are doing just that, which is terrible when you consider that people’s lives can be destroyed by these storms. But there are people out there for educational and research purposes. Is there still a thrill? Of course, but there’s also a productive point to the chase. I honestly haven’t chase on my own, just for fun. It’s always been in the context of educational and scientific advancement.

        A couple years ago, friends of ours went out chasing one night for fun. They came back with all these “cool” pictures of damage from the small town the tornado hit. It took all my restraint to avoid knocking the guy out right where he stood. If you want to see damage, just stay home and watch the news.

        Well, I think I made my point. You got me going there for a few minutes. Must have hit the right button.

      • Thanks, Steve.

        Chasing is certainly a weather topic that I didn’t deal with much directly–when sitting behind a computer forecasting the weather for 20-plus years, you see the weather from a different perspective than those in the field.

  2. I’m sure a lot of it is the thrill of the chase, though I don’t have a television, and haven’t seen the show. A lot of people just want to be outdoors. And some of them, well, people get extreme with every “hobby,” even to the point of risking their lives against high winds on a plain.

    On the other hand, science itself has been very competitive for quite some time, for better or worse. Darwin had become pretty sure of his theory a few decades before he published Origin of Species, but preferred to keep quiet; it wasn’t until he feared “being scooped” that he sent the book to print. Watson and Crick, also, wanted more time to make sure they really were on the right track with DNA, but felt compelled to publish their findings, for fear of being scooped – beaten to print by another team.

    • Interesting story about Darwin–thanks.


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