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                   Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The difference between storm chasing and spotting during a global pandemic; do chasers "save lives"?

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Storm chasing and storm spotting: they're the same thing, right? Not even close. I was a part of storm chasing for 27 years. I've kept logs of all of my chases with photos and videos since I started in 1993, you can view those here on my site. Most of my chasing videos are on my Youtube channel. I emphasize that just in case there is any doubt about my qualification to make the points I'm going to raise in this post.

Storm chasing and spotting are often confused together, and thought to be one and the same by those outside of these communities. But a big secret in the storm chasing world is that they are actually very, very different. There can in very rare cases be some overlap between the two, which I'll get into later in this post, but they are *not* equivalents. There is also a widespread misconception that chasers are out to "save lives" or that they routinely result in things like better tornado warnings.

Storm spotting

So what is storm spotting? Spotting is a trained observer going out in his local community to report on severe weather conditions to the National Weather Service. Let's go through some key distinctions about storm spotters:
  • A spotter's primary purpose for being out during storms is to make reports. Their main concern is to protect their communities by providing realtime information to the National Weather Service, enabling quick and accurate warnings.
  • Spotters do not travel. A spotter stays in his or her home area, many times inside their own county, to watch and report on storms. They do not drive to intercept storms outside of their home areas, as this would leave their community vulnerable if other storms ended up moving through it.
  • Who are spotters? Spotters are made up of law enforcement, fire department and emergency management personnel, amateur radio operators and any trained resident who wants to participate in the process. Anyone can make storm reports, but spotters are the best equipped and seen by the National Weather Service as the most reliable sources.
  • The Great Plains and Midwest have sufficient local storm spotter coverage to handle ANY severe weather event that impacts their areas.
  • A spotter's main disadvantage compared to chasers is that because they only observe storms that impact locally, they have much less real-world experience in identifying storm features. This however does not make them unqualified to report on storms.
  • Are spotters essential during COVID-19 travel orders?. UPDATE: Since the original time of this blog post, the National Weather Service sent out a memo to all local offices that storm spotting is not considered essential travel in areas with stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. Individual orders by state and local governments will determine where storm spotters are permitted to be on the roads. For example the city of Norman, Oklahoma, have added spotting to their list of essential activities during their stay-at-home order. Check with your state and local government for current orders in effect. These orders can change frequently as the situation necessitates.
Storm spotters are public servants who are a vital part of the reporting and warning process for severe weather. They are routinely responsible for tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings or confirmation in areas were no chasers are present. I have tremendous respect for the spotter community and the great job they do across our country.

Storm chasing

Let's contrast this with storm chasing.
  • A storm chaser's primary purpose is to observe storms for their own enjoyment. Chasers are out there to witness, experience and capture photos and videos of storms. This isn't a bad thing, by the way. This is the reason I chase. It's similar to going to see the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park or any other natural wonder. The Plains and Midwest regions in the USA get the most spectacular storms on the planet, and chasers come from all over the world to see them. I even moved to the Midwest to be closer to storms.
  • Storm chasers travel to wherever the best storms (usually supercells and tornadoes) are most likely to form. Chasers will drive very long distances, hundreds or even thousands of miles across the country, to intercept these storms. Some even fly in from overseas.
  • Most storm chasers do not make reports. This is an uncomfortable fact, but it is true. Making reports is not a priority for the vast majority of chasers. No chaser drives thousands of miles for the purpose of making reports. It's simply not their motivation.
  • The few chasers that do report will only report if they see a significant event unfolding, like a tornado or large hail. There are good reasons for this though. Since chasing involves near-constant driving, it is difficult for chaser who is driving solo to safely transmit this information in real time.
  • The average chaser does have more observational experience than a spotter by virtue of the fact that traveling allows a chaser to observe far more supercell storms and tornadoes.
  • Since spotter coverage in the Great Plains and Midwest is very good, it is not necessary for an outside chaser to be present in order for a storm to be reported on. While a diligently-reporting outside-of-area chaser can enhance local spotter coverage of a storm, the local spotters routinely do a very good job without any chasers being present.
  • Storm chasing is NOT essential travel, and as such violates any non-essential travel or quarantine orders in effect.
  • Credentialed TV chasers are media employees that cover severe weather inside of their TV station's viewing area. In most COVID-19 travel bans, media employees are considered essential and are allowed to be on the roads.
In light of all of this, you can see how different storm chasing and storm spotting actually are. Now it's true there CAN be some overlap between the two. There are a handful of storm chasers that are highly equipped and very diligent in making reports during their chases, constantly radioing in reports and prioritizing them during their trips. Take a look at Daniel Shaw's videos to see the gold standard of a chaser who truly fills the spotter role. Some chasers also will send in video and pictures to National Weather Service offices to help storm surveys, but this is not a part of the warning process.

Do storm chasers "save lives"?

The belief that "storm chasers save lives" is an uncomfortable instance of "misplaced valor" in the hobby. Storm spotters have historically been the true outside-of-the-NWS vector by which ground truth and more timely warnings can get issued. Chasers who report and live stream for their local TV station (inside of the station's viewing area) also have made tangible positive contributions. There have also been a *very* few isolated examples of a chaser report that resulted in a more timely warning. All that being said, it is disingenuous to assert that the storm chasing community as a whole is an important part of the warning process. Most tornadoes that occur in the United States happen with no storm chasers present (especially outside of the Great Plains region), and it is the local spotters that are largely responsible for the "ground truth". Tornadic storms with chasers present make up a very small percentage of these events in the USA.

Furthermore, the advent of higher-resolution dual-pol radar technology has greatly improved the ability of a National Weather Service meteorologist to detect and even confirm a tornado in real time. The correlation coefficient (CC) product can detect lofted debris, and is now routinely used along with velocity data to confirm a tornado by radar alone.

Radar-confirmed tornado example from Verbena, Alabama on March 2, 2012 [ source ]

There have been a few instances through history of a non-TV chaser report having a measurable impact on the warning process, but these are extremely rare outliers.

Veteran chasers who started in the 1970s and 1980s have been trying to dispel the "chasers save lives" myth for a long time, yet the belief remains commonplace. Here are a few articles written on this subject by prominent figures in the severe storms meteorology community. Note that these articles represent the personal opinions of their authors, and not their employer's official position.

All of this is not to disparage storm chasing. If you look at this web site, you can see that I was heavily invested in the activity. There is nothing wrong with storm chasing for leisure. But I was *never* out there "saving lives", and virtually no storm chasing peers are either.

Recent evidence of storm reporting by chasers and spotters

Here's some recent data illustrating that a.) most chasers do not make storm reports and b.) most areas are already adequately equipped with spotters. This is the SPC's reports page for the severe weather event on Saturday, March 28, 2020.

Let's focus on two of the tornado events that occurred on this day. One area was covered extensively by chasers present both locally and from out-of-state, the other had no outside-of-area chasers.

The first is western Illinois near the Quad Cities. A tornado occurred near the town of Cambridge at approximately 7:45PM CDT on this night, and we see two tornado reports listed on the SPC LSR (local storm reports) web page for this:

Since one of those LSRs mentioned "multiple spotter reports", I emailed the Quad Cities National Weather Service office to inquire about how many individual reports they received. They replied that there were two spotter reports and one Twitter report from a chaser (which included a photo) that came in at the time of the tornado. Twitter confirms there were two chaser reports that came in close to the time of the tornado, and still others that were posted well after it.

Now let's look at the realtime radar image of this storm. The dots you see on the map are storm chaser's GPS position beacons on the Spotter Network reporting platform. You can see in this image there are more than 25 chasers in the vicinity of the Cambridge storm's updraft. Some chasers don't use Spotter Network beaconing, meaning the actual number of chasers on the storm is even higher than that.

So why are there only four reports that came in close to realtime (one law enforcement and three from spotters or chasers)? Very simple: it's because most chasers DON'T REPORT. You could argue that maybe not all of the chasers on this storm saw the tornado. They could have been blocked by trees or hills. Maybe there was a rain shaft obscuring their view. The fact is this was in an area with flat terrain and good visibility, and that the tornado itself was largely separated from the precipitation and visible for many miles. But ALL of the rest of them missed the tornado? Not likely. If you look on social media, you'll see than multiple chasers saw and got video of these tornadoes (search Twitter for the keywords "Cambridge tornado" to see some examples) some at great distances.

And this is just one event. You can pull up any day's severe weather reports in the Plains and Midwest, then compare it with radar screen grabs that show Spotter Network beacons. You'll see that the ratio of chasers to reports is just the same, if not worse.

Now let's look at another part of the March 28 severe weather event: northeast Arkansas. The most significant tornadoes of this day occurred in and around Jonesboro. There were, to my knowledge, no outside-of-the-area storm chasers here. As a chaser myself, I was not even looking at this area for the potential for producing such strong tornadoes, and none of my colleagues were either. Even the Storm Prediction Center did not have this area in the threat for significant tornadoes. Yet the local spotters in Jonesboro and the city's TV station covered this event very well. There was no need to have even 5 outside chasers on this event, much less 30, 40 or even 100 or more that can be present with supercell storms in prime tornado season.

Why don't chasers make as many reports as spotters?

There are a few valid reasons that chasers aren't prolific reporters. First, unlike a spotter who stays within a small geographical area (many times parked at a designated spot), a chaser is driving 95% of the time. It's difficult and dangerous to be typing out a report on Spotter Network, Twitter, NWSchat or other text-based mediums while driving. What about reporting by phone and amateur radio? A chaser who phones in reports has to know which NWS office is responsible for the area they're in (county warning area or CWA for short), and have all of those numbers at the ready. NWS offices typically don't reveal those direct lines publicly, so chasers typically need to collect them manually by emailing each office to get the number. Then the chaser needs to be aware of the CWA boundaries to know which office to call. Again, that's a nontrivial task to keep up with while driving, especially when a chaser could cross two or three CWA boundaries during a chase day.

Amateur (ham) radio is probably the safest way for a chaser to make reports while driving, but this has complications similar to calling NWS offices directly. A chaser who is traveling has to know which local Skywarn net he or she is in at any given time, and these can vary by county or even by metro area. Local Skywarn radio "nets" each have different rules for participants, and may or may not be open to allowing an outsider on their frequency. A spotter doesn't have this problem because they stay on the same net every time, the local net controller and everyone on the frequency knows who they are. On top of all of this, amatuer radio requires purchasing hundreds of dollars worth of extra equipment and passing the licensing test to become a legal operator. All of that results in most chasers choosing to not use amateur radio to make reports.

Having said all that, let's lay out some facts that are uncomfortable for storm chasers to admit. And yes, this included me. One is that the general public tends to see chasers and spotters as being one in the same. They heap praise on chasers as being out there to "save lives". Chasers know this isn't true, but are happy to accept the accolades and the privilege that comes with it. Many chasers are also quick to dubiously define their activities as "spotting" whenever it is convenient, particularly today when the term can be so exploited and misappropriated to justify circumventing travel restrictions, quarantines or any other limited-access situations. Is a chaser really acting as a spotter? Ask to see evidence of the real-time reports they submitted to the National Weather Service to get your answer.

Storm chasing must take a back seat during this pandemic.

Our primary focus right now should be defeating COVID-19 as soon as possible. To quote respected storm chaser and doctor Jason Persoff, who is currently on the front lines of this battle (read his full post here):

"Chasing is non-essential travel no matter what contributions you think you're making to science or to better warnings. Traveling out of state is considered a no no unless you have some compelling reason to do so that fits the individual states' rules for travel. It is conceptually illegal in some states to travel for leisure right now, so you're taking a big legal risk....

....Simply speaking from a public health standpoint, travel is what caused the pandemic. The idea that a bunch of people traveling around the country potentially with illnesses is the LEAST beneficial thing I can think of. Or, upon return they cause disease caught on their trip to be spread locally." - Jason Persoff

Think about it - the entire country is virtually shut down. Everyone has put their lives on hold to fight this virus. Millions are out of work. No one can go out to eat, to a concert, to a sports game. All sports leagues have shut down. Kids who have trained for year in their sport have had their long-awaited tournaments cancelled. No one can go to a park and play pickup basketball. People can't go to gyms, barber shops or any store that isn't a grocery. No one can go on vacation or even visit their own family. Couples have cancelled their weddings. Even funerals have been postponed indefinitely. Doctors and infectious disease experts have been pleading with everyone to stay home, warning us that asymptomatic carriers can shed the virus like crazy for days, endangering anyone in their vicinity (including at gas stations). Governors in most states have issued executive orders banning any non-essential travel, with the only leisure provision to drive short distances for outdoor recreation.

The National Weather Service took a strong position, going on record that even spotters are not considered essential for travel in the context of the pandemic. The following statement was released by the NWS headquarters and was sent out to all local offices across the USA:

Spotter Activation and Travel:

  • Skywarn weather spotters and storm spotting is not "essential" travel in states/counties/cities with mandatory "stay at home" orders.
  • Our trained weather spotters can safely monitor the weather and convey reports to NWS from home.
  • Please note that while we may still request spotter activation. We ask that spotters relay information about observed severe weather to us while following all local, state, and CDC guidelines.
We will let you know as soon as these guidelines change, and we look forward to returning to our standard protocol after this pandemic.

Source: National Weather Service

Does cross-country storm chasing fall under "outdoor recreation" exemptions in stay-at-home orders? Many states across the Great Plains and Midwest have enacted quarantine orders and non-essential travel bans as part of stay-at-home orders intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. The intent of the non-essential travel bans is clear: they do not want individuals who may be asymptomatic carriers of the disease to spread it far and wide. These orders do, however, give residents the ability to go our locally for outdoor recreation. Most chasers have latched onto the outdoor recreation "loophole", reasoning that all chasing is is "outdoor recreation", exempting them from any and all travel restrictions. In all cases however, the provision for outdoor recreation is intended to only to apply to local residents staying within their communities. A local storm chase is fine, but a long-distance chase trip would clearly not be.

Here are just a few examples of state officials clarifying what they mean by the outdoor recreation exemption, that is, it is meant for locals and not for long-distance travel:

"Stay close to home. Find areas close you can walk or bike to."source ]

New York:
"New Yorkers are urged the recreate locally and not drive a great distance to hike."source ]

"Please do not drive or travel long distances to parks and other recreation opportunities outside of your immediate area. Traveling beyond local communities could unintentionally increase the spread of COVID-19."source ]

"Consistent with federal guidance and to protect our neighbors, Minnesotans should stay close to home and are strongly discouraged from unnecessary travel, including long-distance travel to engage in outdoor recreational activities and travel to and from cabins, commercial lodging, and vacation homes or rentals."source ]

"Stay home as much as possible and try to recreate close to home. Do not travel long distances to parks and trails across the state."source ]

"We recommend you choose to visit a state park closest to your home and not travel long distances to the state's well-known parks."source ]

"Don't travel long distances. Look for parks that are a short drive from your home."source ]

All one needs to do is look around at what everyone else is doing. Everyone else has cancelled vacations and long trips right now because it is obvious what a non-essential travel ban means. This is only a debate within the storm chasing community.

From the Governor of Wyoming:

Governor Mark Gordon said the directive is designed to discourage people from visiting Wyoming until the COVID-19 outbreak is over.

"We know that travel from another state or country is a source of COVID-19 infections in Wyoming," he said. "Visitors from neighboring states have strained the resources of many Wyoming communities, so we are asking them to do the right thing to protect the health of our citizens and the resources of our rural health care facilities." [ source ]

If a storm chaser sleeps in their car, brings their own food and only stops at gas stations, then there is no risk to the public, right? This is another big rationalization in the chase community right now. I'm not an infectious disease expert and I'm not a doctor, and most chasers are not either. But at least one is, and here is his take:

"Because I'm sitting in my car and not doing anything but gassing up, I'm not a problem." Yes. Yes you are. Go back to my previous post. I don't care if your car has never needed winching out, or ever broken down, or that you've never been in a car accident...That's all noise to me. If you travel to chase, you are always a risk of needing help.

Storm chasing doesn't even register on the list of priorities we have in this unprecedented time. To any chaser thinking of continuing their travel plans this season, the only question to ask is this: When everyone else in the country has cancelled their plans and put their lives on hold at great personal cost to fight the pandemic, what is the reason that you won't?

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