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                   Saturday, May 22, 2010 - 3:20AM CDT

Summer patterns ahead; observer convergence thoughts

By DAN ROBINSON
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>> Transitioning to Midwest chase mode?

I've decided to place my Great Plains observing activities on indefinite hold, due to most of the short-term action being somewhat conditional setups located a very long distance from home (read = expensive), and the long-term forecast looking rather bleak for the Plains through the end of the month. Thursday's intercept reinforced my belief that observing close to home, from this point in the season onward, is probably the most sensible course of action. I also have several lightning-related goals I'd like to work on this summer, which honestly are more important to me than seeing tornadoes. I may revisit the Plains in June if circumstances make it feasible.

The upcoming pattern in the Midwest closely resembles a summertime one, with a hot and humid air mass over most of the country's midsection for at least a week. Models show that daily afternoon/evening convection could be present throughout this period, though no apparent severe weather should materialize. However, chances for lightning in the evening and at night may provide a worthy subject for local observing for the forseeable future.

>> Thoughts on the current storm observing controversy

I guess I'll join everyone else in giving my own take on the latest controversy in the world of storm observing. This time, the subject is the sheer numbers of storm observers out on the May 19 tornado event in Oklahoma, and the subsequent driving acts by a few among the hordes. According to many long-time storm observers (and validated by some of the photos I've seen), May 19 featured one of the worst cases, if not THE worst case, of what we call 'observer convergence' in the history if the activity.

Chaser convergence refers to the phenomenon of numerous storm observers 'converging' on a storm, causing long lines of cars and traffic jams on the rural roads of the Plains. Think of the ending scene in the movie "Field of Dreams", and you can get a pretty good visual on what severe observer convergence is like. Consider this image I shot back on May 11 of storm observers following a storm near Vici, Oklahoma. This road was in a remote, rural area in northwestern Oklahoma - and it's possible that this road saw a week's worth of traffic in about 20 minutes thanks to the supercell storm passing by:


click to enlarge

After the 19th, an outcry has arisen about observer convergence reaching 'critical mass' - that is, it is approaching (or maybe already arrived at) the point of making storm observing logistically impossible. After all, storm observing is, in essence, repositioning yourself via automobile in order to get to and keep up with a storm. Heavy traffic seriously impedes one's ability to do that effectively and safely, hence the concern being raised.

However, I think that the May 19 situation was, as I've heard it put, a rare 'perfect storm' of several factors: and not a reliable indicator of trends in observing as a whole. Consider these facts:

  • Central Oklahoma, particularly the Oklahoma City area, has the highest number of resident storm observers in the Great Plains and in fact, the entire USA. I use a loose definition of 'observer' here, as a storm observer can mean anything from a professional journalist, to a hobbyist, a spotter, or a local resident simply curious enough to venture out to see what's going on.
     
  • The local media in this region provides intensive coverage of severe weather, using numerous ground-based chase teams and helicopter crews. Tornadoes are big news in the Plains, and no supercell or tornado goes unnoticed or uncovered in the OKC area.
     
  • Severe storms and tornadoes are ingrained in the culture of the Great Plains, with arguably the greatest public awareness level being in Oklahoma, and likely OKC being the epicenter.
     
  • The Discovery "Storm Chaser" show has further increased awareness of and interest in tornadoes and observing in general.
     
  • On May 19, the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issued a High Risk area for strong tornadoes in central Oklahoma. In layman's terms, this means that forecasters thought that a tornado outbreak was a near certainty. This risk area was relatively small, concentrating on a small portion of the state that included the Oklahoma City metro area.
     
  • A serious "PDS" (Particularly Dangerous Situation) tornado watch was issued by the SPC by early afternoon.
     
  • Two supercell thunderstorms developed early in the afternoon and well to the west of Oklahoma City, slowly tracking eastward and being covered intensely by media the entire time. This resulted in virtually everyone in the state being keenly aware of the unfolding situation.
     
  • By the time the storms got closer to the Oklahoma City area, anyone who is a storm observer; was a storm observer; or thought about being a storm observer, knew about the storms and was on their way to it - and the 'extreme convergence' factor was the end result.
Do I think this is a major problem for the future of observing? Yes and no. From this point forward, I think any major tornado event that happens in central Oklahoma will likely produce these kinds of crowds - so when the next OKC-area high risk happens, I'd expect a similar situation to what happened on the 19th. But elsewhere, I think it will be a long time before we see those kinds of numbers, if ever - in remote western Kansas or Nebraska, for example. In my last 10 years on the Plains, I have seen a slow but steady increase in the numbers of storm observers out - but in the remote areas, the convergences have not yet caused me serious problems, or really any noteworthy issues that I can remember off the top of my head.

One theory is that the 'observer convergences' in/near a large metro area consist mainly of curiosity-seeking local residents wanting to get a glimpse of a tornado, rather than serious storm observers from outside the area. This is consistent with reports from storm observers who were there on the 19th, and would make sense, as if everyone there was a 'conventional' observer, we'd see these same extreme traffic jams on every storm observation day across the Great Plains. In essence, I think the major metro areas in the Plains are like beehives of storm observers and curiosity seekers. When a tornado event strikes nearby, the nest gets 'stirred up' and the swarms attack. As long as the tornadoes stay away from the "bee nests", the numbers stay manageable.

>> Potential solutions to observer convergence

If and when extreme observer convergence becomes a regular occurence, the following may or may not be acceptable solutions. Some of these items I already try to practice:

  1. Avoid observing higher-end risk days in/near large metro areas in the Great Plains - such as Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Wichita, Dallas and Kansas City.
     
  2. Carpool as much as possible with other storm observers.
     
  3. Choose secondary chase targets instead of the obvious ones.
     
  4. Move Plains trip vacations/expeditions/tours to earlier or later in the spring season, such as in April and June.
     
  5. Consider being a 'observing pioneer' in lesser-covered areas and times of year, such as the Midwest in the summer/fall, the South in early spring, etc.
So, I'd sum up my opinion by saying that I definitely see observer convergence as a new challenge to be seriously accounted for in observing strategy - but not an imminent or long-term threat to the activity in general.

>> Storm observing regulations?

A recurring debate in the observing world is whether storm observing will ever be regulated by authorities via legislation or other means, as a result of the increasing numbers. I don't think targeted legislation is possible. The act of storm observing is simply one possible reason out of many to drive on a public road. Given a motorist obeying all traffic laws, you can't outlaw a specific reason or motive to be on a public road. How would that be enforced? It would be like outlawing driving to the grocery store while simultaneously allowing driving to a restaurant on the same road. Or banning commuting to work, because of traffic jams and speeders on the freeway during rush hour.

I do see some possible actions that could be taken:

  • Stepping up enforcement of existing traffic laws. Since most storm observers don't drive recklessly, this isn't really something that would prevent storm observing. It would, however, help solve the problem of the fringe 'crazy driver' elements that give all storm observers a bad name. I think that this would be a good thing for all parties involved, something I would welcome rather than fear.
     
  • Outlawing and levying fines for roadside parking. Again, this wouldn't prevent the act of storm observing, but would make it difficult to stop for pictures and video. You'd just have to keep driving.
     
  • Setting up roadblocks during tornado events. This is already happening in some rare instances, and is similar to what is done in a hurricane landfall zone. Only qualified vehicles would be allowed through. The potential problem with this is that a roadblock could end up trapping innocent people in danger, such as if a supercell right-turns or a new storm develops and moves over the stopped traffic. Roadblocks would have to be highly coordinated events using accurate real-time weather data to be both safe and effective.

In the end, I don't see the act of storm observing being threatened by regulation. The only storm observers that should be concerned are the ones that routinely and egregiously break traffic laws in pursuit of their goals. Police already have the authority to enforce the law, so no further legislation would be necessary to deal with that specific issue. Only increased patrols during severe weather events would be needed to make a difference there.

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