Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fitting Responsible Storm Chasing Into the Warning Process

Let's talk a little bit about responsible storm chasing. In the wake of the High Risk Outbreak over the weekend, I noted several articles discussing storm chasing, issues over the weekend, and the perpetual debate in the weather community between a novice and professional.

I think a couple things need to be said right away:

Each Dot Represents an Active Storm
Chaser (From Saturday,
Credit WichitaEagle/Stan Finger)
First, storm chasers are vital. They've become an integral and vital part of the warning process and the historical record. Storm chasing (in addition to improved technology, such as Doppler radar) has allowed for many a twister that would have been ignored 30 or 40 years ago to be documented. Our records for tornadoes can help us to learn more about how tornadoes behave, where they occur, what situations they occur in, etc. As part of the warning process, they often report their information to the National Weather Service...sometimes this can mean the difference between no Tornado Warning for a storm or increased lead time for a warning. With the advent of new strong-worded warnings being used on an experimental basis in the Plains, their observations can make the difference between a basic Tornado Warning and an Enhanced Warning.

Tom touched on the enhanced warnings in his post the other day.  I will be the first to admit, that I did not (and still to an extent do not) think that issuing these enhanced warnings is the answer. However, the results thus far are encouraging. The Topeka Capital Journal published a glowing editorial on both the enhanced warnings and the SPC's aggressive outlook for the weekend severe weather. And certainly from almost every possible angle, the way this weekend panned out was a meteorological success.

Let's make something clear though. While warnings and sirens have done wonderful things to improve the likelihood of giving yourself time before a tornado strikes, the warning-fatigue/overwarning conundrum is still very much an issue. And with the advent of these enhanced warnings, unless they are absolutely only used in extreme situations (like the tremendous gate to gate shear and reports of a half mile to mile wide wedge tornado from storm chasers noted with the supercell racing toward Wichita the other night), these too will become just another warning that people tire of and eventually start to grow numb to.

Radar Velocity Image of Tornadic Supercell south of
Wichita on Saturday evening.
Second, storm chasers can save lives. Here's a story from last year's Joplin tornado that shows that while a storm chaser's objective is to document storms, they are some of the most selfless individuals you can meet, and you will often hear of them performing life saving rescues in the immediate aftermath of tornadoes, as sometimes they are the first ones on the scene.

With all this said, there are reasonable complaints from some on the Plains that there are too many chasers, and in some cases they are too aggressive. But as with anything, there will be some bad seeds thrown into the mix. While they may often grab the attention of some people, they are very much the exception and not the rule. Any of the links I shared near the top can offer commentary and opinions on storm chaser behavior. The main problem with storm chasing is the influx of amateurs that pollutes an otherwise professional, very well-behaved group of people. What the general public needs to understand is that, unless you have a degree in meteorology or are extremely well-seasoned and well-versed in meteorology and atmospheric science, unless you are a responsible, prepared driver, and unless you know where you're going and how you're going to get yourself out of a situation safely, you do not have any business chasing storms (unless you're out with a reputable storm chasing company...professionals).

So while the county officials in that Salina newspaper are lumping storm chasers together in a group, it's important to understand that amateur storm chasers are extraordinarily different that professional ones. The professional ones are in a sense, helping to save lives and fulfill the mission of timely warnings to as many people as possible. The amateurs may think they can do that too...or they want to get that YouTube moment. Regardless of intent, for most of us, the most responsible way to storm chase is to do so from the comfort of our homes and to get to shelter rather than getting footage when storms threaten those homes. And I hope that's something that will become more entrenched in people's minds as time goes on.