After a deadly week, should we keep chasing storms?


On the plains of Oklahoma
With a windshield sunset in your eyes
Like a watercolored painted sky
You’ll think heaven’s doors have opened
You’ll understand why god made
Those fly over states
– Jason Aldean, “Fly Over States”

I don’t claim to know everyone in the weather community, but I follow a lot of them on Twitter. Thus, I feel like I can make the following statement.

Everybody in the weather world knew a storm chaser who was caught off-guard in the field while chasing the erratic El Reno, Oklahoma tornado. If you don’t know, the EF3 twister took an unexpected 45-degree right turn and headed right for an area highly-populated with storm chasers and researchers who believed they were in a safe position from the storm. I wrote yesterday about how one of my own colleagues, Mike Bettes, was one of the survivors of that horrifying moment.

Discovery Channel photo
Discovery Channel photo

A lot of people knew research meteorologist Tim Samaras, who was confirmed dead on Sunday morning. He was one of the 10 deaths as a result of the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma and Missouri on Friday night. His son, Paul, and fellow passenger Carl Young were also killed in the vehicle. Samaras was a co-star on the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers,” an aptly-named show which probably needs little explanation.

(Also read: Tim Samaras’ full obituary)

To my knowledge, and to the knowledge of meteorologists, this is the first time a storm chaser or researcher has been killed by a tornado they were observing.

So the million-dollar question has to be posed: Is storm chasing too dangerous, or should we continue to go out in the field and seek out tornadoes? It’s a complicated question, and in the wake of tragedy, there might not be a wrong answer.

First of all, a lot of these chasers are doing a public service. They go out looking for twisters so they can relay the information back to the National Weather Service, who then relays that information to the public. Radar can spot cloud rotation, but “confirmed tornadoes” are seen by the chasers.

Most of Samaras’ chases, meteorologists say, were actually research ventures. He attempted to put devices in the path of the tornado that would read and track the storms, which sounds like the movie Twister, but he wasn’t known for getting very close to a tornado. His venture in the severe weather world was to study these beasts so we could figure out what causes them, and, yes, why they make right-hand turns for what seems to be no reason at all.

(Watch: Incredible footage of Tornado Hunt vehicle flipping, taken by an ejected camera)

Because of the need to keep the public safe, it’s easy to explain why storm chasing should continue. But it’s also easy to explain why there should be a discussion about making changes to the science — people just died.

This isn’t necessarily a choose-your-sides-and-let’s-do-battle argument, either, because I’m stuck in the middle of the two positions. I think the study should continue because we desperately need to learn more about the unpredictability of these storms, but I almost lost several friends and colleagues this week. Some people did lose friends and family members this week. We owe it to them to dig into both sides of the argument and find a solution.

Nobody said storm chasing was easy, but it shouldn’t be deadly, either.

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