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                   Thursday, June 2, 2016

The "clogging roads" myth and the cancer of exaggeration in storm chasing

By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
25 Years of Storm Chasing
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Something you won't see from the news media or the chicken littles: traffic-free roads during the Dodge City tornado event on May 24 (click for more images and video)

It started with good intentions, I believe: a call for safety and ethics by respected storm chasing veterans. This was reasonable and prudent in an activity like ours that regularly takes us in close proximity to one of the most powerful atmospheric phenomena on earth.

But now it's gone too far. Truth-bending negativity has infected our ranks, and it's reaping unintended consequences.

In an event that affects any given location in the rural Great Plains every 5 to 10 years (or more), a couple hundred vehicles show up in one afternoon for 2 to 4 hours. On a typical weekday, a sheriff in that rural county sees 30 cars a day in his or her rounds on open stretches of highway. The resulting influx of people from a tornadic supercell in the Plains is a mild version of a normal daily commute for most of us, but to that Kansas sheriff, it seems like armageddon. He complains to the media, and our first anti-chaser news story is born.

In case you've never noticed, the media loves controversy. Their modus operandi is to unfairly slight a large group of people, who will rise up in response. It's a catch-22 for those so maligned - say nothing, and the unchallenged falsehoods creep into the court of public opinion, with real-world consequences days or even years later. It's naive to think that the media has little to no influence with the public. But if the unfortunate targeted group does respond, the offending publisher smiles with the boost in advertising revenue and ratings. It's a lose-lose for the victims, a win for the publisher.

I can't blame an outsider for not understanding storm chasing and its subtexts. Many people I know think I'm crazy for doing it at all, regardless of whether I'm 1/2 mile or 10 miles from a tornado. I can live with someone unfamiliar with the hobby holding unrealistic opinions, but it's inexcusable for those in our ranks to exploit those misconceptions. For reasons I cannot discern, there is an almost pathological desire by some chasers to keep the faux controversies alive, and the media is happy to capitalize on it.

And if things weren't bad enough, El Reno happened. It's almost as if chaser deaths were the one thing missing from the quiver of the experts of exaggeration, and boy, did they ever sieze on it. There were lessons to be learned from El Reno, that much is certain. But it does a disservice to the legacies of who lost their lives to so collude with the media to unfairly tarnish the very activity they lived for.

Let's take an objective look at several themes of concern discussed in recent news media articles:

"Storm chasers are clogging roads"

This is a categorically false statement. In all my years of storm chasing on the Plains, I've encountered legitimately clogged roads due to police roadblocks, local residents, flooding and downed power lines - but never by storm chasers. Chaser traffic can be heavy on rare occasion (maybe two or three times a season), and what I'd call a real problem once every ten years. The way the heapers of hyperbole put it though, apocalyptic gridlock is happening every day and getting worse. Fortunately, chasers have video to show reality. I've posted links to nearly 50 videos to prove it.

Interestingly enough, the last two anti-chaser news pieces completely omitted mentioning those videos, even though the page comes up first on searches for "storm chaser traffic". It's quite telling how only the false side of the story gets out, and thr truth is purposefully ignored.

"Novice chasers are getting too close"

Firstly, "close" is a relative term. For me, close means somewhere between a mile and a tenth of a mile, enough to get good contrast for photos, hear the sound, see the detailed motions at ground level, limit rain between me and the subject and really make it an experience. For others, close means getting inside the debris cloud or even the tornado itself. I have no desire to do the latter, mostly because I'm not equipped properly for it (I don't drive an armored vehicle) and my goal is photographing the whole visible tornado, not just its base. Just like there is no danger getting close to a passing train, there is no real danger in getting close to a relatively small and highly visible tornado, providing you know its general direction of travel. Of course, there is an obvious danger in getting inside the tornado - and I'd hope that any amateur with common sense would see that those doing this are in highly armored vehicles, and it would not be wise to attempt this in their hatchback.

Second, and more importantly: getting close to a tornado is exceptionally difficult to accomplish, requiring extensive experience and knowledge. It took me many years before I gained the ability, and even so I only manage to pull it off a couple of times a season. To get close, one must have a good understanding of storm and tornado genesis/behavior, all AFTER you master the prerequisite of nailing your forecast. Getting close (in my case, within a mile) requires being on top of your game in every way! For those of us who have reached the point where we can consistently be within a mile of a tornado, we can tell you that chaser numbers are very sparse at those distances! It's a complete faux concern that novices are imitating "extreme" chasing and getting too close. 99% of the time, when an inexperienced chaser gets within a mile of a tornado, it's by pure chance and isn't something that person will be able to repeat with consistency.

As for the argument that technology is making chasing easier - the chasers saying this should know better. If you use SPC Outlooks and the HRRR updraft helicity tracks to chase, you're going to bust more than 80 percent of the time. Even if those things manage to get you to a storm, you still have to know what imminent tornadogenesis looks like, storm structure and RFD behavior. Those are all things that cannot be learned from spotter training or watching videos. I only learned it from experience. By the time a novice gets to the point where he has that knowledge, he's no longer in the novice category.

"Chaser deaths are on the increase/more will die"

This is one of the more laughable claims. I suppose this was mathematically true (at least until 2014), if you have zero for 40 consecutive years followed by one year with 3. But what do you do about 2014-2016, when we've gone back to zero? I could mention skiiing, whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, skydiving, motorcycling and other high-risk activities where regular deaths and injuries (far exceeding storm chasing per hour per participant) are a reality, yet it doesn't trigger outrage.

A first grader can see the problem with this, it doesn't need any further discussion.

"Chasers are parking in the middle of the road, setting tripods in the roads, committing traffic offenses and cheering when houses are hit"

In all my years of chasing, I see or hear something of this sort in person once every 3 years. It's extremely rare. The orators of overstatement love to take these isolated incidents and make you think they're happening everywhere, all the time. Again, fortunately, we have video. I'd challenge those both in and outside of the storm chasing community to view these nearly 50 videos of actual chases and count how many times these incidents occur. Additionally, the critics have an impossible-to-please level of hypersensitivity that even the most courteous and careful chaser couldn't keep from triggering.

One idiot out of 300 of us sets their tripod up in the road, and the next thing you know, we have a news article saying it's a pervasive problem in our community. And the quote will come from a chaser!

"Chasers celebrate something that causes destruction and death"

I've blogged about this before, so I won't rehash it too much here. I don't want to hear anyone who believes this ever wishing for winter weather, something that causes far more deaths, destruction and chaos than tornadoes. No more snow selfies!

It's wise to recognize the dangers in storm chasing and reasonable to preach safety and ethics. I'm not saying there are zero problems, and I'm not advocating a lax attitude toward getting close to tornadoes. What's not right is to cross the line into the realm of misleading exaggerations, blowing everything out of proportion to the detriment of yourself, your colleagues and a long-distiguished activity that many (and hopefully you, if you're a chaser) still love.

The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:

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