Some Thoughts on the Current State of Severe Weather Observation, and a Plea to Observe Safely

by John Farley

Since massive traffic jams caused by storm chasers in Oklahoma in May, 2010, along with countless examples of dangerous and irresponsible behavior by chasers seeking to observe severe weather, there have been numerous and heated discussions within the severe weather observation community about the current dangerous, and perhaps threatened, state of storm chasing and severe weather observation. There are multiple aspects to what is being discussed, including mass chaser convergence, irresponsible and dangerous driving/behavior, and the possibility of legislation restricting chasing and/or law enforcement actions that have the same effect. Different issues arise with each of these aspects, so that I think that each aspect is worthy of some discussion:

1. On the issue of mass chaser convergence, such as has happened a couple times recently in Oklahoma: This is a genuine problem. Massive traffic jams near potentially tornadic storms are dangerous - to the people trying to observe the storm, to locals trying to escape it or just go about their activities, and to emergency responders trying to do their job of responding to an emergency. Imagine trying to escape if a strong tornado was bearing down on a traffic jam like this one, photographed near a tornadic storm by storm observer J.R. Hehnly:

I think that a wide variety of factors, including the actions of storm chasers/observers themselves, have contributed to this. Twister and similar movies, specials (and now regular storm-chasing series) on The Discovery Channel and similar channels, Vortex 2, the "live coverage" on The Weather Channel, local media sending out their TV mets to chase, and the wide availability of storm chasing material on the Web, including our Web sites, Facebook, and storm chasing Web sites such as Stormtrack. Yes, that DOES include my Web site, among many, many others. In some ways, all of us who chase and observe storms have contributed to this in varying degrees, and I am afraid the genie is out of the lamp; the horse is out of the barn, or however you want to say it - chasing has reached such a level of popularity that when you have high risks in Oklahoma in mid-May, mass convergence is probably unavoidable. And wait until next year, when all the people that saw this year's hype get out there. Maybe the absence of Vortex 2 will help, but that may just be offset by more newbies and locals inspired by this year's coverage. About all I see that we can do about this is avoid the areas and times when it is obvious that mass crowds are likely to be out. It can be done - each of the last 3 years I have seen tornadoes witnessed by 0-2 other chasers. How? By chasing and observing storms in Illinois, Missouri, and other states less favored by chasers, and also at times of season besides the climatological peak for tornadoes in May. But I will probably never have that experience in Oklahoma in May. And if it is a high-risk day in Oklahoma in May, I will be somewhere other than the most obvious target area, meteorologically-speaking.

2. On the issue of irresponsible chasing/driving/behavior: There have been numerous examples pointed out on on Stormtrack and other places on the Internet recently. These include, but are not limited to, illegal passing, pulling out in front of traffic, standing in the middle of the road, parking without being completely off the road, even in areas with considerable traffic, driving slowly to watch the storm, running stop signs and yield signs, and on and on. PEOPLE GET KILLED by doing each and every one of these things, and it is a miracle that so far none of those people have been chasers or killed by chasers. But if this keeps up, IT WILL HAPPEN. Please everyone, do not engage in these behaviors, confront those who do, and report them when you see them. Yes, the TIV does this and seems to be a flagrant violator, but they are far from the only one. Others with TDC, some chase tours, apparently some in Vortex 2, and gazillions of individual and media chasers have also done these things. So have locals who don't normally chase storms but heard about a tornado warning and impulsively decided to drive out and see what they could see (a very bad idea). It is time for the kind of dangerous and illegal behaviors I describe above to stop, and stop NOW. And that holds true no matter who is engaging in those behaviors.

If you are new to severe weather observation and/or storm chasing, or are considering taking it up, PLEASE read at least the following piece by Dr. Chuck Doswell on how to observe storms safely:

Dr. Doswell's Essay on Safe and Courteous Storm Chasing

Then, even after you have read it, do not go out and start chasing storms, even with the fanciest radar and GPS gadgets, until you have done as much as you can of: 1) Reading books and on the internet about severe storm meteorology, including the different types of severe storms and how to recognize them and stay safe in their environment, 2) Taking one or more National Weather Service storm spotter classes, and 3) riding along with an experienced storm chaser/severe weather observer, either someone you know personally or an organized tour. (But research the tours carefully before you sign up for one; not all of them always chase in safe and responsible ways, either. But many do.) And finally, if you found Dr. Doswell's essay above interesting and useful, you also might enjoy and learn from these links to additional material by Dr. Doswell:

An essay on risk-taking and storm chasing
A powerpoint presentation on safe and responsible chasing, from a 2006 talk by Dr. Doswell

Finally, excellent though now somewhat dated material on how to observe severe weather safely is maintained by the Stormtrack severe weather discussion group, in the "About Storm Chasing" section of their online library at:

3. On the issue of legislation and law enforcement action: I think it is evident that this threat is real and under way now, and those of you that continue to deny it are sticking your heads in the sand. But there are some things we can do that can help to minimize this problem. We can self-police, as I state in the item above. We can avoid places we know will have massive chaser convergences, or move away from the crowd when they occur. We can resolve to NEVER engage in the dangerous and illegal behaviors I outlined in item 2 above. And, perhaps most important, we can work with allies. It may be that in Oklahoma so many eyes are on the storm that we are not really needed, but that is not the case in many places. So we can provide timely information to the National Weather Service (NWS), and also contact them after the storm is over and offer to share with them our pictures and videos for training and analysis purposes. I've seen NWS offices asking for such things, even in Oklahoma where every other person seems to be a chaser. Certainly there is even more need elsewhere. We can assist emergency responders when damage or injuries occur. And those of us who are active storm chasers/observers can remind folks (including people in the relevant businesses) that we are a substantial source of tourism in states like Oklahoma and Kansas in the spring, bringing substantial money into the state in the forms of hotel/motel rooms rented, restaurant and fast food meals purchased, gas station and convenience store purchases, etc. Perhaps some of these businesses can even be recruited as allies if there are attempts to pass unreasonable legislation. I don't know how much any of this will help, but none of it can hurt, in what could be a difficult legislative and law enforcement environment in some places in the next year or so.

John Farley
Edwardsville, IL
May 22, 2010

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