Tornado Chasing and Chasers

I must first make clear that the loss of life is tragic!  Whether a victim of violence, illness, terrorism, being a hero, protecting our country being a hero, or old age – all are inconsolable losses to a mother and father, spouse, children and friends.  So, whatever else, I too morn the loss of those who for whatever the reason, have lost their life, even in chasing their dreams. I know this first hand having worked for 12 years at the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Oklahoma where I was Chief of Meteorological Research.  So, I am familiar with the science and the sport of tornado chasing.  I am going to say things that some will strongly disagree with.  Maybe they are right (as they would protest) and maybe they are wrong.

There are a handful of people who have or are participating in tornado chasing who are very competent scientists.  Yet the practice has become too much of a sport and it is out of hand.  While I do not think it can be easily regulated or stopped, but it should be understood for what it is.  Back in the “old days”, Dr. Robert Davies-Jones of NSSL competently lead our effort.  Back then, the wind speed of tornadoes was very poorly established. This was important, for example, because the nuclear power industry wanted to be sure that nuclear power reactors would be built strong enough to survive intact a direct hit from a tornado (think of Fukushima or Chernobyl) if reactors weren’t constructed to survive a direct hit from a tornado). Work and observations by Texas Tech and others, suggested Tornadic winds might be 500 miles per hours, or even close to the speed of sound based upon straw and 2x4s being embedded in trees and telephone poles and trains being moved around.  Dr. Davies-Jones and Dr. Ted Fujita (of the Fujita Scale) at U. of Chicago used careful analysis of film (movies) to track debris and cloud fragments to estimate the wind speed.  The numbers thus established have pretty much stood the test of time.   However, even then there were (mainly) OU students who went along either independently or caravanned, and I think there was a death of a student due to swerving to miss a rabbit in the road -- not tornado related, but certainly a loss to that family.  Professor Howie Bluestein was hired at OU.  He is a very competent scientist and MIT graduate and he assumed at least some leadership in probably the OU involvement and no doubt coordination with NSSL.  I really do not know much of that relationship, but I do respect his interests and abilities.

But, after the horribly inaccurate movie “Twister”,  it seemed chasing tornadoes became incredibly more thrilling and more glamorous to some.  It became an industry with paid tours being offered by some!  Other brought their classes from schools near and far, and became, in effect, “hangers-on”.  Recently, Discovery Channel created celebrities and those who may have had genuinely strong personal scientific interest, but not the science background, became “personalities” and stars.  Car or trucks were built to look amazing, and instruments sprouted out of them.   Their excitement was palpable, sometime juvenile, and it made, I suppose, really good reality TV.  But I am not aware of any significant science that couldn’t or wasn’t otherwise provided.

Let’s be honest. We are all creatures that share more than we like to admit.  We go to Wild Adventures, Six Flags, Sea World, Bungee Jumping, etc. because many of us like to

(safely) cheat death.  To be thrilled or frightened.  Me too !!!  And many of us go to Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon to marvel on the wonders and the powers of creation.

It is so awesome.  I still remember seeing for the first time rapids in Northern Minnesota on a camping trip lead by my friend’s, Gary Wulfsberg father.  It was incredibly awesome to see and feel the power of Nature.  These are all legitimate, normal, and wonderful motivations, but only if we admit their power over what we do.  And to be on TV, and have admiring fans – I don’t know what that is like, but I think I would like that too.

Now, some real hard-to-swallow stuff.  I think there was a time when scientific observations of tornado were very important as led by people like Drs. Davies-Jones and Bluestein.  That time has passed.  Now it is dominate almost entirely by those are going for the thrill or notoriety, under the false guise of science, and people are dying and more will.  Unless you have an M-1 tank, you are not 100% safe – period – and they better know that.  Taking data from either too far away, or stupidly too close, and hoping someone can make use of it is not much more than stupid.  To say that this will lead to any significant increase in tornado lead times is a lie.  Heck, the tornados that recently killed chasers in Oklahoma were or could have been anticipated two days in advance. Is that not enough?  Doppler radar properly used, has given all that want to be prepared enough time to seek shelter if they want to.  Lead times are typically 20 to 30 minutes.

I am not aware of one single recent scientific advance of significance that has come from the race of tornado chases all striving for the pole position and to get the best (whatever that is) data, presumably closest or IN the tornado – a la “Twister”, the play book.

The proper response when you hear a tornado is coming is NOT to get into your car and 1) chase it or 2) try an out-run it.  The proper response is to have been prepared and seek shelter.   Now, MY opinion on shelters.  The only good shelter is underground.  It could be small but with a sliding door.  Don’t need much in the way of provisions; a bottle of water might be nice, a flashlight and cell phone.  Only need to be there for minutes, maybe 30, plus or minus. No tornado will suck you out, and debris can’t be blown in to you.  Above ground shelters might work sometimes, but to make one that would work all the time would cost more than digging that smart “man cave”.  More properly named, the smart shelter.

If you disagree with this, fine.  It’s your life. Just remember, your life may mean more to someone else than it does to you.