Monday, June 03, 2013

The Difference Between The Weather Channel & Tim Samaras

The severe weather event in Oklahoma on Friday has lead to some rather robust debate over the role of storm chasers and their contribution to the weather community.  Some of this was hashed over initially in an article I wrote on Saturday, prior to leaning of the death of three individuals who died while doing research in  El Reno.  Saturday's article spoke more to the hysterics and hype angle that continue to permeate the weather world but I think we need to put the whole discussion in a broader context.  Some of this is probably rehash of what you've seen elsewhere but it's gnawed at me over the past couple of days.

It's clear that a distinction needs to be made between the profit-seeking, ratings-grabbing, fame-chasing realm of storm chasers and hypemongers and those who are doing this for purely scientific purposes.

First, understanding why would someone chase severe weather?

Well, in research purposes the idea of chasing severe weather is to gain greater understanding into severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, and how the atmosphere works in times of severe weather.  Severe weather chasing has been around since the early 1970's, pioneered by the University of Oklahoma for research purposes.  The movie Twister made storm chasing more popular on a mass market scale, with the last 15 years seeing a proliferation of severe weather chasing as a cottage industry in the Midwest and the Plains each spring and summer. Tours ship people around and a number of college and universities sponsor severe weather research projects in the Plains within their meteorology departments.  On the research side, severe chasing has merit and value. There's tremendous good that's been gained over the years by research-based chasing.

The profit-seeking, attention-grabbing, oneupsman realm of severe weather chasing do it for reasons that aren't predominately scientific. The need to grab great video to sell to television and need to get in front of a camera or on air is what drives their need to do what they do. They may use science as an ulterior or tertiary motive...but when you accept money for your work, or become more known as an extreme chaser instead of a researcher, you fall into this second category whether you like it or not.

Let me say this about as clearly as possible -- while severe weather chasing does come with inherent risk, the work that Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young did in the field had immensely more positive contributions to the industry and to science than what The Weather Channel and other profit seeking chasers could ever provide.

I feel bad for Mike Bettes as a person. He's damn lucky to be alive and lucky that he didn't end up in the hospital like his producer did as they dealt with the tornado in El Reno on Friday.  I don't know Mike personally -- I do know people who do.  I know that people who know him swear he's down-to-earth and a relatively good guy and I believe those people.  I also have been informed from people relatively close to The Weather Channel that Mike was put in a pretty bad situation on Friday by his bosses, who pulled some of his more seasoned chase partners away from Oklahoma City and leaving him out there with a less experienced group.

While Mike isn't completely blameless...he did blast chasing in 2011 for getting a bit too extreme...I do know that the pressures of the TV business and profit-seekers sometimes outweigh the moral compass. on laurels.  With a family to feed, sometimes it's a tough call.  You hope the video snippet you had a couple of years ago is forgotten and you do your job...

The media tour that followed Friday has been disgusting however, whether it's fueled by Bettes himself or by his bosses at The Weather Channel...whoring Bettes out for ratings and milking the footage for all it's worth is a disgraceful way of showing that you give a damn about your employee.  If it's Bettes that's pushing this, it's shameful that he would pimp this up as an opportunity to milk coverage for a few extra eyeballs and a few extra dollars in his network's coffers.

As someone who is somewhat in the media by having run this site for several runs, the continued slide of substance in the name of hype, ratings, and attention disgusts me. This is almost a Howard Beale moment of sorts for me.  The problem is...the media alone isn't to blame.  The general public isn't rebuking bad behavior...the weather community is not strongly shaming and calling out extreme footage on top of extreme footage from unsafe areas near and outside of the storm.  The media are feeding the beast, who is hungry and wants more.

Being the loudest, being the screamer, being more extreme doesn't make you a better forecaster, scientist, or meteorologist.  It may give you more followers on Facebook or twitter, may generate a few more eyeballs, but you do the industry a disservice.  It's why TWISTEX (Tim Samaras' project) only had a few thousand followers on Facebook until his passing while other "extreme" profit-seeking chasers have ten or twenty times as many followers.  It's why guys like Mike Morgan, who didn't help the situation on Friday by telling people to drive in their cars in an attempt to move away from a storm over television, have a place out there because they grab great ratings even though what they say on air is completely, totally, counter to what the NWS and other sound meteorologists preach.

The weather community, as I stated on Saturday, owns this.  The community needs to shun those who put profit and fame over science in chasing and in covering these storms.  It needs to say no to selling video to TV stations.  TV stations and media companies own this by feeding the beast and helping drive more extreme antics. They need to stop buying the videos, stop putting their meteorologists in harm's way, and stop putting profit first when it comes to public service.  While I doubt any of this will come to fruition, it's my hope that the weather community will at least be more forceful in putting science over thrill, putting the research up front in chasing.

I don't want people to think I'm shunning chasing altogether.  For scientific reasons, research chasing is risky but appropriate when done safely...keeping distance from the storm, working in teams, for science first and foremost.  Yes, there will be risks and there will probably be another death at some point in the future.  However, moments like these should lead to reflective thinking and an understanding that a larger contingent that chase severe weather does it for motives other than science.  They need to be shunned and discouraged from continuing such antics.  That's on us...and on the whole weather take ownership.

The opinions above are mine and not necessarily shared by those on's staff.