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                   Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 6:03AM CST

The unsustainability of Great Plains storm observing (an opinion now retracted)

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NOTE: I have decided to repost this blog entry from March 4, 2011 in its entirety in an effort to prove how I once was firmly in the "storm observer traffic is a crisis" mode, mainly as a result of the May 19, 2010 traffic jam at Hennessey, Oklahoma. I even took a year off from covering the Plains in 2011 because of it! I now realize I was wrong. I changed my mind after examining the evidence, which is what I feel that any rational person should do in any search for truth. I feel silly now for going off the deep end so much on this issue in 2011. It was an over-reaction to an outlier event, one that I regret. It's possible that my past opinion may have even fed the storm observer traffic crisis myth we see today! I hope that my fellow colleagues will examine the evidence as well and come to the sensible conclusion.

Original post, March 4, 2011: Last year, I went through sort of a crisis regarding my attachment to the hobby of tornado observing in the Great Plains. It was something I knew I'd have to deal with eventually, but I felt could ignore it until that became necessary. The event that finally brought on the 'time of reckoning' happened on May 19 of last year, the infamous high risk day in central Oklahoma. Thankfully I decided not to observe storms that day, but the photos and videos of the traffic problems encountered by those that did were both astounding and saddening. It was that day that I saw clearly where the future of Plains storm observing was headed, and knew things would not be the same for me in the hobby again.

That day set in motion an inevitable realization, an acceptance of reality that gradually resulted in a loss of my passion for the activity over the next few months, and a tempering of my deep love of observing tornadoes in the Great Plains. It was not unlike losing a loved one - shocking, numbing and depressing for a time. Even though I have mostly 'moved on', I still feel the void - the absence of something I used to look forward to and plan for all year, something that motivated through the winter and gave great satisfaction when April and May finally rolled around.

I usually have some trouble eloquently explaining my thoughts in a flowing narrative, so I'll just outline the facts that led me to that point:

  • Storm observing in the Great Plains is on an unsustainable path. I believe that the activity of storm observing on the Great Plains is heading for a major crisis in terms of a participant's ability to do it safely, effectively and ethically for two main reasons:
    1. Unsustainable growth: There is a growing influx of storm observers into the hobby each year, and no egress. This means the 'critical mass' problem that came to full fruition on May 19, 2010 will only become more commonplace and will eventually spread from metro areas into the rural zones, and from the southern Plains into the traditionally lesser-covered northern Plains. We may not see that for several years, but it will come. Even now, the traffic problems in the rural areas have been significant. One only has to pull over to watch a storm and then try to get back onto the highway to see this - there is usually an endless line of traffic with few gaps available to merge.
    2. Unsustainable skill improvements: Learning how to get good at storm observing is getting easier and easier with each passing year. We are constantly improving in technology, data, models, forecasting and intercept techniques. Tornadoes and supercells, however, are not getting any more sophisticated and any harder to catch. As more storm observers come into the hobby, and as those of us currently doing it get better, the traffic congestion will become more acute at ever-closer distances to the storms. I once heard a skilled observer say a few years ago that there is little traffic less than a half-mile from a tornado. We can expect that to be a thing of the past as storm observers improve their skills in mass numbers (May 10, 2010 near Wakita, OK for example).
  • Storm observing has long ago transitioned from being an asset to a liability for Plains communities. This is possibly the 'big one' for me personally. There was a time when storm observers actually did contribute productively to the safety of the Plains and to the advancement of the science, but we've reached a point where our numbers have crossed the line of neutrality.

    The primary reason for this is a result of point #1 above: observer traffic has become a threat to the Plains population. There is no getting around the fact that massive traffic jams around storms really do get in the way of emergency vehicles and residents. It's a fact, we need to accept it and deal with it. Despite our railing objections, the news articles and complaints from EMS people are all true. Even if everyone was obeying traffic laws and not being blatantly discourteous (by blocking roads or not pulling over), the sheer number of vehicles is going to start being a real problem for first responders - and could conceivably start costing lives in the case of someone needing rescue or medical attention. That's a shocking realization that the expedition community has been in serious denial of (that even included me up until last year).

    To top that off, with a large influx of new storm observers unfamiliar with 'chase ethics' that would deter them from driving recklessly in the frantic pursuit of tornadoes, the general public has a reason to fear chase vehicles more than the storms themselves. Remember "Camaro Guy" from 2009 in Missouri? Our numbers are actually more likely to start costing lives rather than saving them. I'm really not too excited to be a part of that.

  • Storm observing in the Plains has a decreasing ability to practically contribute to science and public safety. While I'm not saying we don't have anything left to learn about tornadoes and supercells, I do contend that we've long passed the point of diminishing returns on the value of any one storm observer, much less all of us collectively, being able to make any real contribution to science or the warning process.
  • Passion for Plains observing is a "Passion Without a Purpose". Passion for storm observing in the Plains is a purposeless one, unless that purpose is to fulfill one's own self-centered desire for adventure. I've concluded that my life passion must have a real purpose to be valid - a purpose that goes beyond my own desires, one that makes a positive difference in the world. There was nothing wrong with observing purely for selfish fun, no more so than going on a vacation to the Bahamas is. But when our numbers cross the line from being a positive impact to a negative one to the community, the 'passion' for observing becomes somewhat of an evil.
Those who disagree with me on these points have said that things aren't really as bad as I make it sound. I really, really wish that were true - and it took me a long time to accept that it wasn't. That might be true in the more remote areas of the Plains on lower-risk days - for now. The only storm observers who can afford to be out there for all of the low-risk days from March to August are the wealthy guys. Those of us with more typical limited leisure funds have had to wait for the bigger days during peak season to go for our tornadoes - part of the very reason things are headed down the path they are. And yes, I realize that I've been as much a part of the problem as everyone else has. I'm another person there, another car in the line. Another vehicle for the EMS people to have to get by. Letting that sink in is the big reason for the first sentence, and resulting theme, of this post.

I think it all boils down to a simple cost-benefit analysis: what do I have to gain from contributing to the growing fiasco in the Great Plains, and how do the communities there stand to suffer? Add on the consideration of the thousands of dollars a year it costs to have a respectable Plains season (with rising gas prices making that even higher), and the numbers sadly do not give me much enthusiasm.

Is there any hope?

Now having said all that, storm observing is still my chosen avocation. I still love the hobby, love watching storms, love traveling on the open road - and I still have a desire to participate. It's just that sadly, I simply no longer have a passion, or even a great desire, for observing tornadoes in the Plains. And so, I've had to think about how to alter my observing aspirations and plans to reflect my new outlook on the hobby. I realize that like I once was, many storm observers are still in denial of these facts (and will be for some time), and still others may not even care if their actions have an increasingly negative impact. But for those that do, I'll share my own personal solution. If you've been a reader of this blog for very long, you've already heard me say this - the answer to the Great Plains observing problem is to chase outside of the Plains.

Here are the benefits:

  • Storm observing outside of the Great Plains is observing 'how it used to be'. In the early days of observing in the 1970s and 1980s, the veterans of the hobby had a challenging time with limited data and few tornado intercepts. However, through all of that, they had the benefit of enjoying a love for the secondary aspects of observing: thunderstorms, scenery, sunsets, photography and the solitude and freedom of the open road. 'Chaser convergence' was rare and an enjoyable meet-up of good friends whenever it did happen. And every once in a while, they would score a tornado.

    That is exactly how storm observing is outside of the Great Plains today. There are tornadoes, supercells and great storms outside of the Plains. They are in the Midwest, the southeast, even along the Atlantic coastal plain. If you go consistently in these areas, you will see tornadoes. You will get a few great storm photos. And you will never see a storm observer traffic jam and never have problems finding a place to park. Sure, you won't have as many great intercepts, but you will still get a few - while having more quality, enjoyable storm observation days. After all, isn't that what observing is really about?

  • Storm observing outside of the Great Plains is an asset to the community. Some supercells and tornadoes in the Midwest, for example, have no storm observers viewing them at all. A observer on a storm in places like Illinois, Indiana or Alabama may actually have a chance at being an integral part of the warning process and a contributor to storm data. Some of the USA's worst tornado outbreaks have happened outside of the Great Plains, and will happen again. When the next Super Outbreak strikes, how many Plains storm observers will be in Kentucky?
  • Storm observing outside of the Great Plains yields unique photo and video opportunities. While dryline storms of the Plains are almost always more photogenic, my opinion has been that the novelty is lost by hundreds of other storm observers capturing the same images, and any enjoyment of the experience is ruined by the traffic, crowds and complaints of emergency responders afterward. In 2006, I saw and photographed an F4 wedge tornado in Illinois that no other observer saw. Last year, I captured a tornado in Missouri as one of only 2 or 3 storm observers on the storm. Not only would those types of intercepts be impossible in the Plains, they are actually among my most favorite observing experiences.
  • Storm observing outside of the Great Plains is challenging, but rewarding. It's harder to do storm forecasting outside of the Plains. Non-dryline setups typically do not have obvious targets, storm speeds are faster, and a bad tactical decision is more likely to result in a bust than it does in the Plains. But in my opinion, this makes the storm observation day more interesting, and it makes a successful intercept much more rewarding and memorable.
Plains storm observers typically scoff at the idea of leaving the admittedly more reliable dryline storms for the lower-probability warm frontal, cold-core, outflow boundary or cold frontal setups common outside of the Plains. But I have to ask - which is better - 5-6 tornado days a year on the Plains with traffic jams, plus the prospect of interfering with emergency responders, or 1-2 tornado days a year elsewhere with no traffic - and the real prospect of being an asset to the warning process? I choose the latter, and think it's a pretty good option for the reasons listed.

Furthermore, there is plenty of room outside of the Plains to support many storm observers choosing this option. I don't expect the majority of the expedition community to ever migrate from the Plains, so I'm comfortable in sharing my thoughts without the fear of 'ruining' non-Plains territory by encouraging a big influx. Non-Plains territory is far off of the radar of mainstream storm observing, and I would highly recommend it to any observer who is frustrated, disillusioned or simply losing interest in their once-beloved Great Plains trips. I count it as a privilege to be able to experience observing like the veterans did in the 1970s, and I believe others will too.

Addendum: What if you're a storm observer who lives in the Great Plains states? I have to admit I feel some sympathy for my peers and good friends who live in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and northern Texas. It's like their homeland is under an invasion, no longer can they enjoy the great storms in their own backyards the way they used to. I've thought about what I would do if I happened to live in the epicenter of the storm observer traffic problems, and here are some ideas:

  • Event secondary, tertiary or lower-risk targets: When everyone is headed for the no-brainer triple point or dryline bulge in western Oklahoma (just one example), target the warm front in northeast Kansas or the conditionally-capped possibility farther south on the dryline in north Texas. While these areas will probably also see increasing traffic problems in the coming years, you may be able to 'turn back the clock' as far as the era of observing with lower numbers - at least for a few more seasons.
  • Event out of season: May and early June are currently the absolute worst times for observer traffic. Consider taking the chances on February, March, July and October, for example.
  • Consider staying local or being a spotter on big days: On a high risk day, why not stake out a spot in your community and act as a spotter? You avoid the traffic trying to keep pace with the storm, and provide a service to your neighbors. We all have had those days where you left home for a big event, only to have a storm come right through your town unexpectedly that few storm observers were on. Staying local will also save you money in fuel and hotels!
  • Try the Midwest: If you have the funds to travel, how about skipping a few surefire Plains trips to come here? Keep your expectations realistic - your chances of success are lower - but why not try someplace new with a fresh challenge?
All of the solutions, whether you expedition in the Plains or not, mean that you have to accept the fact that you'll miss some nice events. That's a hard pill to swallow. But in doing these things, you will also from time to time score some memorable storms and tornadoes that the hordes won't. In my mind, I've come to appreciate that as a greater reward than seeing all of the 'storms of the day' with 500 to 1000 others.

Great entry! Thank you for writing it. The congestion is a decent part of why I hung my hat on the rack, so to speak. Mostly life changes. But congestion was the straw that broke the camels back. I had my reasons to be out in the field.. largely, I had research hopes.

Two incidents come to mind- #1. 2008. I was in NW Kansas on an E-W road about to take a right on a N-S road to reposition. Some more notable vehicles passed on the perpendicular road as I was approaching the intersection. Behind them? 40-50 other vehicles.. to venture a dangerous guess- probably a large portion were people that saw these vehicles and decided to blindly follow. There were a few sedans with media logos but that's it. It took about ten minutes for the caravan (which was going a good 20-30 under the speed limit) to pass. Result? The one and only time I've been hailcored. (And yea.. I've been actively observing for almost a decade.. and spotting for half a decade before.. so it's not like it was my first time out..)

Point #2- I was talking to my mom, who lives in rural southern Kansas. She was on a very curvey, hilly, county road driving home from work when all of a sudden someone came up behind her, tailgated her, almost hit her a few times, passed on a hill/curve but didn't get fully over in the left lane, ran her off the road (no shoulders) and apparently flipped her off as well. He had an anemometer on his car, a CB antennae and other such gear that screams 'hey look at me, I'm an expeditioner'. She gave me a description of his vehicle but couldn't get a license tag b/c he was driving so fast and had driven her off the damn road so she was pretty shaken up.

I hopped on Spotter Network to see if anyone was in that part of the county. Turns out there was. Unfortunately, it was someone I was facebook friends with and had, literally the day before, a very great conversation with. This persons vehicle matched, to the T, the description my mom had given me. It made me absolutely sick to my stomach to hear that had happened. I'm very glad my mother was alright. Just ... sick that a fellow observer came so close to seriously injuring my mom or killing her, had he been about a half mile up the road where it drops off sharper from the side.

It's dangerous. Stupidly dangerous. And not because of tornadoes, either. People need to remember that traffic laws apply to them, too. Also, if you're not contributing something to other people, or to science or something be adult enough to realize the only reason you're out there is for a self-centered thrill/reason and STAY HOME!
- Posted by Erin from KS

Thanks Erin, I appreciate your comments. This is one of those things that I'd love to be proven wrong about and be able to get back out there someday. Maybe in 10 years, the novelty of observing will be past, and the numbers will ease up. We can only hope!
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
Hi Dan, wow, thats terrible! i was thinking of trying this observing thing,i have always wanted to see a twister. but it looks like it is becoming rediculous, I think I will stick to observing fish! haha I know we had a record amount of tornados here in MN last year, but they are really hard to see, with all the rain, and usually lots of trees too. I have been watching storms for 40 years and have yet to see even a legit funnel, though I know I have been pretty close to a few. i know a few expeditioners got some good video up here,last year but that is the exception I think. observer crowds, don't come up to MN, you will be disappointed!
- Posted by Michael Thompson from minnesocold
Michael, Minnestoa can get a few really nice events in the summer, mainly June through August. Keep a watch on it, you might see something good!
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
Oh yeah, I look to see and photo lots of good events!
- Posted by Michael Thompson from minnesocold
Weather expeditioning does put money into the plains communities, possibly not a lot, but its still good to have the people out there spending.
- Posted by Steven
I got to see my first tornado sunday 5-22, and got some pics and video too, it really helps to know where to look, I didn't know before, thats why I missed them all the time.
- Posted by Michael Thompson from MN

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