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RAW: Storm Hunters capture tornado forming (COOL)

Want to be a storm chaser? Here's what you need to know

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Mark Robinson
Meteorologist

Thursday, April 14, 2016, 5:06 PM - Is getting up close and personal with a whirling cloud of moisture and debris useful for anyone? Am I, as a storm chaser, providing any good for anyone; or am I just being selfish and feeding off the storm-induced misery of others?

The question is harder to answer than you might think.

The Onslaught of Controversy

Storm chasing has been around a long time (more on its origins lower in this article), but only recently has it funneled huge numbers of people into locales recognized for high-impact weather. Inevitably, there’s been a backlash against storm chasers as they race across various ‘Tornado Alleys’ trying to intercept supercell thunderstorms and capture that iconic shot.

People living in these alleys complain that chasers are becoming a scourge on their community as cars decked out in antennas and hail-shields (I’m no exception) flood into towns that weren’t meant to handle an influx of people and vehicles. Often locals accuse chasers of profiting off misery, ignoring laws and generally impeding on emergency responders tasked with the jobs of keeping residents safe and informed.

And now, this underlying sentiment has led to media outlets bashing chasers as a whole. I admit; there are problems within the chase community that need to be addressed. But to say chasers are nothing but a headache is disingenuous.

A Who’s Who of Chasing

If there’s a thunderstorm on the plains, prairies or even the outskirts of a city there’s a chaser under it.

But technology cannot ground truth a tornado. In other words, there is still a need for someone watching and reporting that a tornado is occurring. Enter spotters (or people who don’t chase and are often a citizen of a town). These people are a critical part of ground truthing an event and have studied or underwent training to identify what to look for in a dangerous storm through SKYWARN (U.S.) or CANWARN (Canada). However, spotters cannot move around and observe the storm from various angles, or see the storm before it strikes a town.

The availability of internet data and up-to-the-minute radar has lowered the difficulty of storm chasing and made it more accessible to the public. You no longer need an advanced degree in physics or meteorology to forecast ahead of time but can, rather, whip out your smart phone and look at the radar and head for the storm (it’s easy to read a radar map in your car and just aim for the storm). This ease of understanding is predominantly the reason why amateur chasers, weather enthusiasts, or however you would like to refer to this increasing demographic, are now part of the conversation. The impact? Any given storm will have a horde of chasers below it, leading to traffic snarls, improper driving and safety violations.

This is a serious issue, but it also needs to be said that in all the years I’ve been chasing, I’ve only witnessed a few serious incidents around the storms. In addition, those who have seriously transgressed are identified and sometimes turned in to authorities. Most chasers don’t want to be the person who brings down the reputation of the whole community.

At the core of the storm chasing community are individuals with the same basic understanding and training of the aforementioned spotters. Although in many cases, these individuals have more and often include meteorologists and meteorology students.

The separation in this demographic in comparison to the previous ones discussed is the ability to pivot; ultimately making these chasers so important. Being under a storm, sending back information through amateur radio (also called ham radio), cellphone, or by streaming video through the internet means that authorities can make warning decisions based on real-time data that's coming in from areas not covered by spotters.

So if a storm is moving towards a town with no spotters in the area; that is a big problem. With informed chasers around, there’s likely going to be someone there watching and equipped to deliver the important data.

Seeing a tornado is the pinnacle of storm chasing and at the same time, adding to the critical gathering and dissemination of information for the residents of the affected areas.

It’s as a win-win scenario: Chasers capture both incredible video and pictures to enjoy while the scientific community and residents of the common storm-threatened areas receive an added layer of information that might just help save lives.

The Origins of Chasing

Storm chasing began in the 1950’s with Dave Hoadley. After an encounter with a severe thunderstorm in his hometown of Bismark, ND, he wanted to learn more about the weather systems that caused so much destruction. It began to slowly gain some popularity in the United States in the 70’s and 80’s, but was generally relegated to a few hardcore chasers like Jim Leonard, Tim Marshall, Chuck Doswell etc. They were an eclectic group of people, consisting of meteorologists, scientists, and doctors; or people from all walks of life. But what drove them all was a love of the spectacle of thunderstorms on the Great Plains.

Chasing storms began to get more and more popular and tour groups, such as Cloud 9 Tours, began to spring up, offering to take people out to do storm chasing as a holiday. More chasers began to make their way out to Tornado Alley from all over the U.S. and Canada. Even those from other parts of the world began to arrive, eager to capture a tornado on film. Throughout this time, most chasers had to work very hard and have a near encyclopedic knowledge of meteorology in order to forecast and intercept a tornado-producing thunderstorm. Information was spotty and hard to get.

In 1996, the movie Twister came out, a romanticized depiction of the storm chasing community. At the same time, a new way of getting information to chasers arrived; cheap cell phones. These things had the effect of exploding the popularity of chasing and at the same time, lowering the bar of difficulty for people who wanted to get out to the Plains and chase. Far more cars began to show up underneath the storms as they spun across the field of Kansas and Oklahoma.

In the mid-2000s, mobile internet took off and now data was available on the fly. You could plot your position and watch real time radar of the storm you were pursuing. That meant that getting closer to the tornado was now far safer and easier. Storm chasing shows began to take over TV channels and made it look extreme and cool. That alone got people out on the roads.

Final Thoughts

Today, if there’s less than 100 cars jockeying for position underneath a rapidly spinning updraft of a storm on the Plains, I’m surprised. Long lines of cars filter down country roads and immeasurable numbers of people stand on the sides of roads, gazing up in wonder at the storms that glide majestically overhead. Hotels become prized commodities at the end of the day as a horde of tired, hungry chasers descend on a town for some food and place to sleep.

And yet, other members of the public often see storm chasers as the good guys. People that live in Tornado Alley see chasers getting out and being a witness to the storm while getting information back to the authorities. They also see chasers helping out with cleanup after the storm or even while the storm is still ongoing. People stop and talk with chasers that they encounter, getting information about the incoming weather as well as safety advice.

Knowing all this, backlash around this unique culture is inevitable.

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