Twisting the Goal

The science of meteorology and the avocation of storm chasing are grieving over the loss of Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and colleague Carl Young -- the first-ever deaths associated directly with storm chasing. When combined with the close calls of a number of high-profile chasers Friday evening, we are in shock as well as mourning.

In the wake of a tragedy, there is the natural human desire to "do something" -- we want to somehow make it better to prevent similar tragedies in the future. 

The first thing I'm going to suggest to everyone reading this posting is to grieve as best we can while helping the Samaras and Young families and friends. Some the chasers involved in the accidents Friday evening may, sooner or later, suffer from PTSD. Please keep a watch out for it and urge them to get help if they show the signs.

But, that is where I believe we should stop for at least six months and let the shock heal.

Why? Because, in the immediate wake of a tragedy or atrocity like September 11th, the desire to "do something" often leads to something that is terribly counterproductive.

After September 11th, both R's and D's in Washington said we needed a Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I believe it is the most counterproductive agency ever created by the federal government. Why do I bring up the dysfunction at DHS? Because, just last week, DHS at the Windsor, Ontario, check point stopped a huge shipment of Canadian relief supplies headed to the Oklahoma tornado victims! DHS was protecting the U.S. from Canadian charity. See what I mean?

So, in addition to suggesting a time for emotions to start to mend, where does storm chasing go from here? Based on several messages received since 2am asking me to comment, here are my thoughts.

Storm chasing began at the University of Oklahoma in 1972 (that story is here, if you are interested). From then until 1996, storm chasing was a largely unknown activity, primarily dedicated to research. It all changed when Twister came out. Suddenly, everyone knew about storm chasing.

In the final scene of the movie, the tornado suddenly changes direction and the protagonists find themselves running for their lives with no good options. As depicted, they were lucky to survive in a barn filled sharp farm implements.

I believe the director, Jan de Bont, meant that scene as a cautionary tale. Unfortunately, some -- especially in the media -- seemed to view it as an instruction manual. Friday, a minority of chasers, especially associated with the media, literally drove right into tornado.

In spite of Friday, storm chasing has done a tremendous amount of good the last forty years.
Doppler on Wheels storm chase team, Clearwater, Kansas, May 19, 2013
Storm chasing has led to today's tornado warnings that save well over one thousand lives each year. 

Those calling for "regulation" in the wake of this tragedy are well-intended but misguided. People die climbing El Capitan in Yosemite. You don't need a license to climb Mount Everest. Those activities are adventures (just like storm chase tours). People knowingly take a risk.

Besides, law enforcement is not qualified to determine "good" chasers from "bad" chasers and "safe" situations versus "unsafe" situations. Law enforcement was unhelpful in the Indiana State Fair stage collapse (note: not a criticism, just stating a fact). There is even a report that law enforcement cut off the means of escape (southbound U.S. 81) south of El Reno Friday evening. I can cite other times where law enforcement was counterproductive around extreme weather. Again: My intent is not to criticize law enforcement; I'm sure they are well-meaning. It is an issue of qualifications.

Storm chasing, on the whole, has saved far, far more lives than it has cost. But, that balance will tip quickly if things do not change.

I suggest we go back to the pre-Twister model of storm chasing: Respectable distances, at least two paved escape routes, storm chase teams as opposed to individuals. Stop trying to out "extreme" the next guy. Make sure that your goals include getting vital information to the NWS. Otherwise, what is the point?

But, any regulations, laws, etc., need to wait until well after this storm season is over and people have had time to think through all of the implications and practicalities.


  1. Thank you for your, as always, well reasoned and well articulated thoughts. These thoughts should be taken to heart as these recent events are processed by any who were involved or who might want to "make the situation better". Time needs to be taken in the immediate aftermath of these events before any wise decisions can be made. Again, thank you.

  2. I honestly do like how respected, knowledgeable and professional meteorologists single out the movie "Twister" as the downfall to the science and research of storm chasing and meteorology. Twister came before reality TV - now you have many tornado chasers etc for extreme weather - someone thought that this makes for good TV. Now however, we are caught between grieving for 'one of our own' that we lost -vs- mourning the loss of life, but do not criticize their actions for how they perished. I agree in this article, lets put a moratorium on chasing for 6 months, lets look to see how this can change. I really sometimes wonder if people think that they can strap themselves to a pipe with a belt in the center of any tornado and walk away unharmed.

  3. Great post, Mike. The greatest tribute that can be made to these men is to promote safe practices among the community. It should be done by each of us reinforcing what good practices look like with each other - regulating would be an over-reach.

  4. Mike, I'm a spotter; my "job" (at least as I see it) is to try and protect my community, not to run all over the place trying to get extreme footage to sell to the media. Honestly, I've been expecting the death of a chaser for some time now. :(

    In my opinion, all the extreme weather hype on TWC- and other outlets- helps drive the never-ending quest for bigger/faster/closer/more radical/more dangerous/more EXTREME!!1 footage...along with the adrenalin junkies who pursue it.

    Getting the word out to those at risk, giving reliable ground truth, and being an accurate observer is what (IMO) saves lives. OTOH, increased exposure may help drive interest in science, which is a good thing. :)

    Anyway, you've forgotten more about weather than I'll ever begin to know in several dozen lifetimes, so please forgive my babbling. ;)

  5. Molly,

    Thank you for being a spotter. You perform a valuable service that often gets overlooked. I was an official spotter from age 15 to 18 in suburban Kansas City.

    I do want to offer a little perspective: While we are all understandably in shock, in the 41 years of organized storm chasing these were the first three deaths.

    Thank you for your comment.


    1. Mike,
      Actually these were not the first, in the mid 80's a Met Student from O.U. was killed when caught in a micro burst (as best defined)south of Guthrie Ok. Long before Twister. I started Storm Spotting and then chasing in the 70's in Oklahoma and was training officer for Oklahoma Co. E.M. in the late 80's and 90's. Just to bring it into conversation and I agree with you that chaser convergence is a problem and has only gotten worse since I stopped field chasing in 95 due to private citizens chasing the chasers they saw on T.V.

    2. Butch,

      If I recall that 80's incident correctly, he rolled his car. It was a traffic accident while storm chasing, not a hit from a tornado.

      I believe there have been two other fatal traffic accidents involving storm chasers not in the proximity of a tornado.


  6. Very well written. Thank you for the level- headed and balanced opinion.

  7. Dr. Samaras should have been able to calculate the risk. As SalMaella suggested, NOAA could have obtained surplus combat vehicles from the army. Wheeled combat vehicles would be the right ones. As a Department of the Army civilian, I have been involved in giving surplus army equipment to other agencies and groups. Storm chasers are taking foolish risks, not necessary risks. NOAA has a competent bureaucracy. There is no reason why NOAA storm chasers should not have been equipped with adequate vehicles.

    There was never any excuse for anybody to chase a tornado in an SUV. Wheeled combat vehicles go back a long ways in history.

  8. @Miner: There is no such thing as a "NOAA Chaser" to my knowledge.

    1. The Severe weather forecast center out of Norman Oklahoma is NWS and NOAA, ANd NWS works with them. Thats why they are saying NOAA. Here is a link
      Also in response to Asteroid Miner those army vehicles would not have mattered in an ef 4 or 5 it still would have tossed it like throwing paper in the wind or an aluminum can in a breeze. And it still would have been severe damage to it. Yes it would not have crushed like a beer can but being tossed for a half mile flipping over and over like that there was no chance for them at all. Being a firefighter I have went on Roll Over accidents that rolled less then that over less footage and it looked like that car and there were no one who survived. Those vehicles are also way to bulky and heavy to spot and chase with they are also gas hogs. You need something that can pick up speed fast and something that you can turn around on a small road quickly so that if you find your self in that situation you can get out of the way fast. Being a Certified NWS Skywarn Spotter we are taught want we should and should not do. Will they try to regulate it more? More then likely. I think they need to reissue Badges with photos and require to have training every year instead of every few years, They should have Radar reading classes and Map reading classes as well. We can not rely on GPS and cell phone coverage to cover our butts. Where I spot/chase there are allot of dead space in cell service that is why I use Ham radio to report to NWS. Those cars though wont work in my opinion

  9. I totally agree with you as a NWS trained SKYWARN and a Spotternet Trained spotter I totally agree with you.. It is the ones using the tornado tours, and the people who are not trained out there chasing to take pictures like the last 4th person to die chasing did. It is also the ones who are thrill seaking to get the latest Video or Picture to be able to sell to the media or be the biggest hit on You Tube and they dont even report there findings or what they are seeing to the NWS. Even at times the out of state people are no help to NWS because they do not know the area and when they call in to report a tornado and NWS asks them where are they located and where did they see the tornado and they said UMMM we are not from here we are not sure. And NWS says if you dont know then how good is the report then. This is true btw from a friend who works at NWS. Its these they are putting them self's at risk and also the local Spotters/chasers that know the area like the back of there hand and know all roads and escape routes that are the ones risking our safety and making it look bad for the entire Spotter/chaser community.



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