Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Storm Chasers Are Not Bad! Not all of them...

Storm Chaser, Michael Hook (The WeatherNinja) is probably the most well known storm chaser in Arkansas and we're lucky he chases storms for Channel 7.  Please take the time to read his perspective below on storm chasing in light of what happened in Oklahoma last week.

STORM CHASERS ARE NOT BAD! Not all of them......
June 4, 2013

With the deaths last Friday of legendary storm researcher/chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young in the El Reno Oklahoma EF-5 tornado, the media seems to be focused on storm chasing and is "it getting out of hand". 

I thought I would present my view. Why do you storm chase? That is a question that a lot of chasers get and have been getting this week by media all across the country. I have seen reports on all major news networks as well as The Weather Channel and Discovery Channel (home to the tv series StormChasers).  The answers I see given the most are "to save lives" or "for research". True? I'm not here to judge why someone does something. Many chasers to indeed provide valuable information back to the National Weather Service or the local television/radio stations in order to provide the public with a "ground truth" of what is actually occurring in or near a storm. I put those doing research in a different category because in most cases it's easy to see who they are and what they are looking for. Not always though as many times students studying meteorology could be chasing in an old car or truck with no markings what so ever. But in my experience, you can kind of weed out who is doing what.

Some do it for or are employed by local TV stations as a way of confirming information back to the stations weather dept for broadcast during on air warnings. Many stations will show the live feed the chasers are providing.

Some would say that they do it simply because they love nature and storms in general. Some want to get video of the storms or stream live video so people at home can watch (kind of like a virtual chasing adventure) and get paid for their live stream (you're not going to get rich, believe me), well, I take that back, I know some that do quite well in marketing their product and selling videos, shirts, etc. Whatever the reason, they are out there.  Lately it seems the media has been focused on the "dangers" these chasers cause, that they get in the way of emergency vehicles, that they clog the roads so that people cannot escape, and on and on, but I disagree to an extent. 

First of all let me clear a few things up. Storm chasers are not the same thing as storm spotters. Storm spotters are people that "generally" stay in one local location and report severe weather information back to local National Weather Services offices via some form of communication. Ham radio operators are many times storm spotters, volunteer fire departments have many storm spotters, any citizen can take a storm spotter class from the National Weather Service and become a storm spotter or do it through a SKYWARN chapter, or some other method. These people make up a valuable service in keeping the public informed of dangerous weather. Many times when a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning is issued from the NWS it is based on what the radar sees. We have come a long way in weather technology but the radar still cannot see what is going on at ground level and that is where spotters and chasers come into play. They really are the eyes on the ground for the NWS and can confirm a funnel cloud or tornado is forming, that large hail is present, or that damaging winds are occurring. We need these people!

Each one of those red dots is a trained spotter on Spotter Network. Some are spotters and some are chasers and most are both.

Storm chasers on the other hand, don't generally stay in one area, yet move to where the severe weather may develop or is occurring. NWS storm spotters can also be chasers (that's me) in that they still relay that information back to the NWS but at times they are not in their local areas but move around the state or region.  I think I've covered just about every group (well I can through in tour outfits as well, companies that load people up into a van and travel across the nation so that people can see tornadoes).

So do they cause issues? Are they dangerous? I guess that depends on who you ask, what the situation is at the time, and where you are located. I know several chasers in and out of Arkansas and have never known any personally that operate in a dangerous manner. Brian Emfinger is a well known chaser out of NW AR, Nick Helliums out of Memphis with Mid-South Chasers. The Core Punchers out of the Sheridan area and a team of chasers out of central AR (Paul Wilkerson, Chad Gardner, Michael Bodiak and Bobby Powers) that operate professionally.

Storm chasing is very popular in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, Missouri in the springtime. This is because many chasers know this is where the action will be, Tornado Alley. Many chasers will plan their vacations in the spring to go chasing where the land is flat with fewer trees, so you can get a good view of the storms and keep a safe distance. May is the peak month for tornadoes in the United States and you can expect to find hundreds if not thousands of chasers during severe weather days in this part of the country. The Storm Prediction Center puts out a severe weather outlook every day and when severe weather looks possible, chasers start planning their trips. Yes I can say I have seen a "Chaser Zoo" out there from time to time but normally only on days when the risk is fairly high. But when these chasers come into an area, they are actually providing a service in that the public knows something is going on weather wise. Everywhere I go in my chase vehicle "The Pod" I get asked by people if the weather is going to get bad and what time should they expect it and I make it a point to answer every one of them and I think most chasers are the same way.

Now..I'm not saying there are not bad apples out there, but there are many more good chasers than bad. Yes, I have seen chasers speeding, driving in no passing zones, running red lights, stop signs (I did that one time in Pine Bluff and there is video evidence), causing traffic jams, entire families (with kids in car seats), etc, but I like to preach to appreciate the good before you criticize the bad and If I see a chaser acting irresponsible, I will point it out. I have seen tornado tour company vans filled with people traveling at speeds over 90 mph to catch a storm. Not good! I have seen chasers texting or on the computer while driving. Not good!  

But from my perspective, these are isolated incidents and not the norm. I have never in many years of chasing seen a chaser get in the way of emergency vehicle, in fact many chasers will stop their chase and help if a tornado or severe thunderstorm has caused damage. Chasers are a tight knit community and are usually some of the first responders on the scene of a weather related natural disaster.

The majority are good, responsible men and women, young and old, they provide a valuable service that we need in this country. They support local mom and pop gas stations, eat at our restaurants, spend money and don't cause any trouble. I want the public to recognize that.

Each little arrow represents a chaser or spotter and their direction of movement. The white dot is the El Reno tornado.

While the deaths of Tim, Paul and Carl is tragic. We don't know the circumstances of what lead to their deaths other than they were caught by a massive tornado. There were many chasers in the area on that afternoon as it appeared west of Oklahoma City would be ground zero for thunderstorm development. I wasn't on that storm but got too close for my own comfort on a second tornado that evening in S Oklahoma City. Throughout the entire event, I heard countless reports from chasers as to what was going on and that information was being relayed back to the public. Although 13 people were killed, it could have been a lot worse. There is some research out there that identifies that people don't take tornado warnings seriously unless they have confirmation that a tornado is actually occurring and not just radar indicated. They will go outside and look for themselves. They will check social media to see what is going on. If one TV station is reporting a tornado, they will change to another channel to see if it is reporting the same thing. All this before they act. Much of the information they are looking for is being provided by storm chasers and spotters.

No traffic jam here in Kansas 

If you asked me why I chase, I would say that I have a fascination for weather. I have been chasing for many years and am very comfortable in approaching storms. Every storm is not the same and you have to respect nature. I am fully trained but can always learn more. As much as I would love to say that I do it mainly to save lives, would not be truthful. I do it to keep the public informed, yes, that is a top priority, but not the only priority. I love weather and that's why I get out there. I do however, feel a responsibility to inform what I see back to the public via social media and communications with the National Weather Service via cell network or twitter. I am thinking of getting involved with the ham radio community. I am in direct contact with the meteorologists at KATV Channel 7 in Little Rock and they can grab my live stream to show on the air exactly what I see. I also report my findings back to them and they in turn can immediately inform the public. 

Chasers meeting near Shawnee Oklahoma after the last tornado of the day dissipated.

Does it always work as planned. Not always. There have been times when I got caught up with the social media aspect of reporting and failed to report "FIRST' to the NWS. This was the case last Friday when looking at the video tape, I recognized that even though I had the NWS office number in front of me, I failed to report what I was seeing. That won't happen again, as I have put forth some standard procedures to follow when out in the field.

I do stream live video and that is for you the public to see what is going on. I get paid when people watch, but it rarely covers the cost of fuel when I'm out. And as you probably know, I don't just stick around Arkansas. I travel all over the US in search of storms. I can't explain it, I just do. It's who I am.

I'll end with this. The media in this country seems to always find the worse in something and try to make it an issue. Storm chasing has been around long before I was born and will be here long after I'm gone. We need the boots on the ground to increase our warning times. In my opinion, if we had not had the tragic deaths last Friday, some of the national media networks questioning whether or not chasing should be regulated, wouldn't be bringing this up and would continue to lead the news with the videos these very chasers provide.

Sorry for being long winded and I probably didn't say everything I wanted to but chasers are not bad!


Here is a link to my storm chase video out of South Oklahoma City last Friday. The video is a little long (20 minutes) but I wanted to show how the chasers were working with a local TV station reporting back reports of what was going on, on the ground. You can also see how the media was suggesting that people drive away from the storm which in turn, created a traffic jam in some sections.

The El Reno tornado was classified as an EF-5 with winds measured by a DOW (Doppler on Wheels) at 296 mph. The tornado was also measured at 2.6 miles wide, which, if confirmed would be a new US record.

The tornado weakened and then a new tornado formed, which was the one I was on. It was much weaker than the first one with winds of 86-110 mph but had a width of 1.4 miles. 


Thanks for reading Ninja's Corner

Don't forget to listen to my forecast weekday mornings at 6:25-6:30 am on 103.7fm The Buzz in Little Rock and follow me on Twitter at 
www.twitter.com/weatherninja or on Facebook:WeatherNinja. My new website weatherninja.net will be up soon and you can watch my stormchasing live stream on my webpage, the AR Weather Blog or on Chasertv.com


Anonymous said...

I thought it was Carl Young.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was Carl Young.

Anonymous said...

My problem is not so much the chasing but the excitement that people have in hoping for tornadoes. I have seen it on this blog. Tornadoes destroy property and lives. To "wish" for this type of weather is disturbing. The question of storm chasers being heroic is up for debate I guess. Storm spotting is one thing but chasing is turning into a sport.

Anonymous said...

Great blog post, Ninja. It's great for people to be aware of the difference between "chasers" and "spotters" and what they contribute to the weather community as a whole.

Greg Reddin said...

Thanks WeatherNinja, for sharing this detailed post. Thanks for all the information and for being honest enough to admit even your mistakes. Even the information you give in this post is instructive about how tornadoes work, about how people react to them, and about what folks should and should not do.

I've always appreciated the information you provide and I've always admired the way you approach storm chasing.

Michael Hook said...

You are correct it is Carl Young. I was thinking about another chaser at the time and see where I typed Chris. Thanks for pointing that out.


Jeff Armstrong said...

Thanks Michael for the very well written post! Unfortunately the bad apples in the storm chasing community are ruining it for the rest of the bunch. The national media is obviously taking advantage of that for the sake of ratings. Man, how they love the drama! That being said, I understand where one of the Anonymous comments are coming from when some chasers get the excitement and adrenaline rush going in anticipation for these tornadoes, keeping in mind that they are a serious threat to life and limb. One must always remember to have some humility while pursuing these kinds of activities, especially for those in danger of severe weather.