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                   Saturday, February 12, 2011 - 1:06PM CST

Storm observing myth #163: Storms and tornadoes are a grave danger to storm observers

By DAN ROBINSON
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Some basic questions to ask:

  1. Historically, how many storm observers have been seriously hurt or killed by supercells or tornadoes, night or day?
  2. How many storm observers have been killed or seriously hurt by severe thunderstorms, night or day?
  3. How many storm observers who were NOT deliberately attempting a close intercept have been caught inside/close to a tornado, night or day?
Unless there is an unpublished account I'm not aware of, the answer to questions 1 and 2 are ZERO, going back to around/prior to the 1970s when this activity got started. For question number three, the number is probably in the single digits. Most every case I am aware of when observer has been hit by a circulation, that observer was attempting to make a calculated close intercept on purpose. So far, these impacting tornadoes have been on the weaker side (no surprise, most tornadoes are weak), doing nothing more than breaking one or more of the vehicle's windows.

Now please hear me on this - I'm not saying that tornadoes/supercells/severe storms don't present any hazards, nor that a storm observer can be care-free around them. And I'm also not saying that a storm can never kill a storm observer, because someday, one probably will. But they are a negligible danger to the average observer, and truly not something to worry much about. The stats prove it, and we all should know it, those of us who do it all the time and have first-hand experience around storms. That's a fact that is hard for us to admit, especially in the current climate of public opinion that builds storm observers up thinking we're so noble, brave and/or crazy to do what we do. Storm observers tend to get caught up in this hype, especially since it's about something we revere with such passion. But taking a step back to gain some perspective can, and should, really change that.

The dangerous part of a supercell storm is so small relative to its surroundings that it is difficult to get yourself into it on purpose, much less accidentally. You have to be at the exact spot the large hail/tornado crosses a road at exactly the right time. That's not easy to do even if you're trying, night or day.

At night, it's no easier to get yourself to that pinpoint place where a tornado crosses the road than it is during the day. Could you inadvertently drive into a tornadic circulation? Sure, but what are the probabilities of that? How many times has it happened to other storm observers, and how does that number stack up to the collective number of hours that storm observers have logged through history, day and night? Of the tornadic circulations that storm observers have driven into/been hit by, how many of those have been of any real consequence other than a broken window or two?

Now I know that one day, a storm observer will get hit by a truly violent tornado, with tragic results. But even still, what are the probabilities of that happening to any one of us? Is it even worth worrying about? Why obsess over that risk, and yet still drive 75-85mph on rain-slicked roads on every chase? Not to mention, drive while simultaneously looking at a laptop screen and holding a video camera?

Every year, multiple people die and are seriously injured while whitewater rafting, skydiving, rock climbing, BASE jumping, mountain biking, skiing or just driving on the highways. The statistics prove it: thankfully, storm observers don't die from storms. We don't even get hurt by them that often. If skiiers freaked out over their risks as much as storm observers do over tornadoes, every resort would be shutting down. Every whitewater rafting guide company would go out of business due to the legal liability.

Once again, I'm not saying "be careless around supercells" or "get close to tornadoes without radar at night", but I am suggesting that we pull back on the overdramatization of storm dangers and put the focus on the real risks: driving on wet roads, driving while using a laptop, while fatigued, etc - in other words, the things that have actually taken the lives of storm observers and have the potential to cause a real tragedy someday. I think that it is nearly pointless to hammer on about storm-related dangers over and above a brief mention for good measure. Storms are simply not a real threat to us, and reality bears that out.

Very interesting read Dan. Another myth I hear all the time up here by the weather "experts"is don't get in your vehicle and try to escape the path of a tornado. Don't understand that one, especially after watching some videos of storm observers. I remeber when I was 5 we lived in kansas, and I used to be so scared when there was a tornado warning lol mabye from watching wizard of Oz or something. now up here in MN we have tornado warnings all the time with most not having tornados. I have been trying to spot one for 30 years without even seeing a funnel even. mabye now that we had the most twisters of all the states last year more storm observers will come up this way and I can mabye ride along with one. some weekend
- Posted by Michael Thompson from minnesocold.

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