5 June 2013

I Was Chasing When Chasing Wasn’t Cool

Posted by Dan Satterfield

This was an Oklahoma road last year during a tornado outbreak. Trying to get out of the way of a tornado in your car is never a good idea but with all these chasers on the road, you would have no chance to outrun it anyhow!

In 1979 I was on the National Severe Storms Lab chase team, and people would actually laugh at us. In those days the idea was to get good quality film of a developing tornado and try to match scientific theory of tornado genesis with fact. The other very important goal was to match real world with radar signatures, especially using the new Doppler radar at NSSL. There were only a couple of Doppler radars around in those days and the research was very important. You only got on the chase teams if you were a good student in the OU meteorology program, and especially so if you were an undergrad.

How times have changed. Was it the movie Twister or is it the fact that you can now have GPS and live radar with you on the road? I don’t know, but now when severe storms are expected, hundreds of cars line the back roads of Oklahoma. All of them carrying tornado chasers, some with a background in meteorology, and some with nothing more than a desire to get close up video of a tornado to sell to a media outlet. It is certainly causing problems for scientists at NSSL and OU who are trying to get close up radar data from severe storms.

I’ve waited a few days to write something here because I wanted to think on things for a while. I am still thinking on it, but a few observations are worth writing down.

OU Professor Dr. Howie Bluestein measured winds of nearly 300 mph in the El Reno storm last Friday. This data caused the NWS to upgrade the tornado to an EF 5. This is real science.

1. The news media is overplaying the scientific benefit provided by nearly all of these chasers. Especially the silly ones taking armored vehicles on purpose into a tornado. That may make good TV on The Weather Channel, but it’s of no real scientific benefit. If you want to add to the science, take some calculus and enroll at OU. I’m sure Howie Bluestein can still fill a board full of equations to help you understand the real science! Dr. Bluestein measured the highest winds ever recorded on the planet in May 1999 during the first Moore Tornado. He did it from a mile away using a Doppler radar, not a ridiculous looking armored SUV.

2. During both recent tornado events in Oklahoma, the coverage provided by TV station chase teams was embarrassingly bad, with screaming and poor information on the size or track of the tornado. They not only did little good, but probably caused harm. Kudos to KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City for presenting by far the best coverage. The helicopter pilots who risked life and limb to bring live pictures of the approaching tornado, and the NOAA warnings and tracking were the real life savers.

3. KFOR weather person Mike Morgan has been criticized by many of my fellow meteorologists in broadcast TV, and at NOAA for telling folks to drive away from the tornado. Only a very tiny percentage of tornadoes are not survivable above ground, and unless you are in a very rural location, the worst thing you can do it to get in your car. In this event, the flash flooding after the tornado made those in cars, stuck in traffic much more vulnerable to flash flooding. Flash flooding kills far more people each year than tornadoes. Rick Mitchell the former KOCO TV weathercaster said it correctly in the article I linked above. It is worth repeating:

“I believe we need to eliminate this one sentence from weather coverage: “if you are not below ground, you will die.That is an incorrect and misleading statement that makes some people feel they have no choice other than to get in their cars and try to outrun the storm.  If one is going to leave their home, they must do so BEFORE a warning is issued so there is plenty of time.”

4. The El Reno storm on Friday was one of the strangest I’ve ever seen. I’m sure many papers will be written about this storms a-typical behavior, and it likely is a factor in the deaths of three experienced chasers. It looks very likely though that those chasers who were injured or killed were inside a large mesocyclone that produced a tornado to their southwest and surprised them. (Tornadoes rotate around a rotating mesocyclone and this leads to a cork screw effect when you look a long tornado track.)

Oklahoma City Meteorologist Jon Slater at KOKH TV said this about the chaser deaths today:

“Hearing the storm chasers, who got tossed by the tornado near El Reno, account of the storm is somewhat troubling. I have not heard one chaser admit they made a mistake. Basically every statement is along the lines of ” the tornado was very erratic. It made a left turn and came right at me. The tornado all of a sudden made an unexpected turn and came right for us.

It’s very sad and tragic that these storm chasers were hit and tossed and some killed but the bottom line is this…

If you are chasing a tornado and get hit and tossed by the tornado it’s your own fault. You are TOO CLOSE to the tornado. 

These were experienced chasers. They knew going in that tornadoes make erratic moves and unexpected turns especially multiple vortex tornadoes. They are the ones that video tape, study and document them every year. They also knew going in that there are other storm chasers out there and traffic sometimes is a serious danger. Seems to me that over the years these experienced chasers got too comfortable and lost respect for the power of nature. 

You must allow some distance so that when tornadoes make weird moves you are not in harms way. It’s not the tornadoes fault. Tragic, just tragic.

Storm chasing 101….”

People in glass houses:

I hesitate to criticize severe weather coverage because I know how difficult it is to do. I’ve been subjected to criticism over past events as well.  That said, the OKC media needs to take a hard look at how they covered these storms.

A hard look.

One last thing to those young folks who tell me they want to grow up and be a storm chaser. I know of NO ONE who makes a real living storm chasing. No one. I do know quite a few meteorologists who make a decent living trying to figure out how these storms develop and how to forecast them better. They had to learn some physics and maths to do that.