by Jason Politte and Scott Blair
Like any other activity in which people come and go, storm chasing is an ever-changing hobby. Storm chasing encompasses a broad spectrum of people and brings many different faces and fresh ideas, but with that influx, issues will inevitably arise that affect everybody involved, not just those who perpetuate them, whether intentionally or not.
One of the more hotly contested issues that sprung forth during the season was how close one should get to tornadoes. This being a subjective debate, there will be many differing opinions. I think everyone can agree though that a chaser's experience level is a major factor in correctly determining how close to get and still be in a relatively safe position. With experience, patterns can be recognized and tornado behavior somewhat but never fully anticipated. For example, it is far more dangerous to be in close proximity to a tornado during the erratic rope-out stage. However, this is essentially a non-issue, but as this year has certainly shown, issues do arise as a result of "getting close."
The most disturbing of these issues involves the actions and behavior of a few "chasers" who sometimes manage to get close enough to actually observe property being damaged or destroyed. While most chasers in this situation would express dismay or simply state the facts as to what's occurring, there've been a few instances; the most recent involving the Manchester, SD F4; in which some have actually cheered the destruction of property, jumping for joy literally moments after witnessing a house being swept from its foundation and/or encouraging the tornado to "take the houses." Not only is such behavior obscene and disgusting, but it's also quite inhuman. And when actions such as these are aired on national television, not only does this reflect poorly on the individuals involved but also on the chasing community as a whole. Perhaps it would be wise for these "chasers" to reflect by placing themselves on the receiving end and asking, "How would I feel seeing others reveling in the destruction of everything I own?" It would be wise for chasers to remember what Al Moller said a few years ago, "It's hard to enjoy the fascination of storm chasing when people are getting hurt."
For the most part, chaser/public interaction has always been very cordial and usually informational for those who've had the opportunity to meet and converse with chasers in the field, and in the past, the fallout from these inhumane reactions to property destruction would reside mainly within the chasing community. However, the recent incident involving the Manchester tornado was sold to many national media outlets and aired countless times on national television. What must have been going through people's minds upon seeing someone leaping ecstatically after a house was literally obliterated? It's quite realistic to assume that many people's perceptions of chasers changed forever, now seeing us as thrill-seekers or "ambulance chasers," out only to witness death and destruction, and not an important factor in the severe weather warning and documentation process.
Obviously, a wide array of emotions will be present while observing a tornado at close range, but it's not difficult to restrain one's self and show consideration and respect for the victims. And if those few are going to continue acting irresponsibly in the face of destruction, then the least that can be done is edit out that portion of the video before making it available to the media. At the very least, a poor perception of chasers won't continue to be fed, and the rest of us will be able to maintain good relations with the public.
While its each chaser's own decision regarding how close to get to a tornado, the situation becomes a bit more complicated when the decision falls on the head of tour group operators. Several storm chase tour groups have popped up in the last two years, claiming to be helmed by "veteran" storm chasers. It's worth noting though that some of these so-called "veterans" were never heard from before two or three years ago. Where did these people come from, and where did they get their experience? I'm sorry, but a degree and five to six years of experience doesn't make anybody a veteran of anything. Only when one garners the experience that chasers such as Dave Hoadley, Chuck Doswell, Al Moller, Tim Marshall, Jim Leonard, and Gene Moore can claim can that veteran label be earned. There is no shame in not being a veteran. Gaining those many years of experience is simply part of the process of achieving that status.
But, I digress. Some of these upstart "veteran" tour groups are claiming that seeing a tornado isn't enough, but the goal is to literally feel the tornado's wrath. It's unfortunate, but with these types of attitudes, a chaser will eventually be seriously injured or killed by a tornado. While a tornadic fatality to a single chaser may not be considered worthy enough for national media attention, such an incident in which tourists, who are for the most part only along for the ride, are involved would certainly become a media frenzy. And with that, many questions would arise, such as, "How could this happen," and "Can't there be some sort of regulations to keep this from happening in the future?" Maybe the above scenario is a bit overboard, but with the recent trend of chasers measuring their success by getting dangerously close, it appears that it may only be a matter of time before such an event occurs. If it does, the face of chasing may change for many years to come.
Switching gears, this year has also brought forth what can only be seen as a combining of "storm enthusiasts" and "storm chasers" on some online forums devoted to keeping up with current events regarding storm chasing. While this "merger" could prove to be advantageous in the future, it has in the present contributed to a dramatic degradation in the news-worthiness of such site forums. The two groups are obviously linked in the sense that a storm chaser is almost inevitably a storm enthusiast, yet a storm enthusiast is not necessarily a chaser. The fact that a chaser is willing to travel literally thousands of miles and spend hard-earned money to observe severe weather events constitutes a significant separation from the enthusiast who follows severe weather events through a variety of means, such as numerical models, radar, chase accounts, etc…, and occasionally ventures out when severe weather is close to home.
Neither group is more significant than the other is, and both can play important roles in the weather arena. For example, enthusiasts often serve their communities proudly as spotters and some take the time to archive data from severe weather events across the country. Chasers also often aid in the warning process by providing timely severe weather reports to the proper authorities while documenting the event through still photographs and video. However, a forum dedicated solely to storm chasing should be kept as an outlet for chasers to post chase photos, observations, and accounts. Enthusiasts shouldn't be discouraged from posting to a chase forum, but they should make sure that the information is relevant to storm chasing. Appropriate topics would include but are not limited to:
archived weather data from severe weather events
images and accounts of actual severe weather events
and links of interest to chasers, such as sites regarding severe weather events and/or research.
A prime example of a non-relevant topic would include an image of rain along with a "chase account" of an obscure shower that has no bearing on severe weather whatsoever. Such irrelevant topics not only bring down the entire forum but also make it more difficult for users to sift through the posts and find useful information.
The issues addressed above certainly don't indicate where chasing is headed in the future, nor do they indicate a significant decline in the quality of the "chasing experience." However, if the current trends continue to develop in the next few years, it's entirely possible that there could be some consequences that will affect everybody involved, changing what chasing means for each one of us. For the authors, simply roaming the extraordinarily beautiful Great Plains in search of the majestic supercell and elusive tornado is both "magical" and enlightening. But, it's not just about the storms, it's also about the people you meet and the places you visit. For us, chasing is about as close to a "spiritual experience" that we'll ever have, and it would be quite deplorable to see any part of that experience affected because of the actions of a few.