Sunday, June 2, 2013

Thought This Would Happen: Tornado Chasers Run Over by Tornadoes

I heard some sad news today that three professional storm chasers were among the nine people killed by the tornadoes that swept through Oklahoma Friday.
A big Oklahoma tornado about to send a vehicle
containing a Weather Channel chase team flying  

Three other storm chase vehicles got caught in tornadoes, including one with the Weather Channel's Mike Bettes, who suffered relatively minor injuries.

I knew this would happen eventually. I think everyone who knows anything about storm chasing realized this would happen.

There's been an arms race of sorts, with people getting closer and closer to tornadoes,  or even inside them, taking more and more dramatic videos that the public eats up, thereby making plenty of money from their videos.

As a weather geek, I admit I'm one of those who loves those storm videos.  But the whole concept of storm chasing has gotten out of control in recent years. Dozens of chasers regularly converge on large tornadoes, causing traffic jams that would make it hard to escape if the tornado changed directions.

And tornado chasers have been getting involved with increasingly volatile weather situations. Friday's Oklahoma tornadoes were especially sudden and erratic, popping up abruptly and changing directions without rhyme or reason.

Interestingly and tragically, the chasers who died, Tim Samaras, 55, his son Paul Samaras, 24, and Carl Young, 45, were reportedly some of the more safe chasers, a trio who didn't take as many chances as others.

Details on what happened are sketchy. The tornadoes were acting so far out of the ordinary that they might have been caught off guard. Or, they had an escape route but the roads were so clogged with cars that they were trapped.
Cars tossed around in Friday's Oklahoma tornadoes.
Cars are the worst place to be in tornadoes.
Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman.  

Adding greatly to the traffic woes was some very bad advice some Oklahoma City media outlets gave to the public:  Try to outrun the tornado in your car.  That's the worst thing you could do, as vehicles are easily flung by tornadic winds, and cars stuck in traffic jams surely are not going to outrun a tornado.

Even a building with no basement, which is common in Oklahoma, are much safer than cars.

We were also subjected this week to the aforementioned Mike Bettes of the Weather Channel being tossed about by a tornado, a another storm chaser being smashed up by a farm disintegrating in a tornado and a local television station's storm chasers getting caught in 100 mph winds on the edge of another twister.

The YouTube video of the chasers getting hit by the farm debris had racked up 500,000 hits within two days of it being posted, which demonstrates the popularity of these dramatic videos.

There have been other close misses among storm chasers in recent days. One chase team got themselves caught inside a very strong Kansas tornado last week, but survived to give triumphant television interviews on the morning news and talk shows.

Television networks eat up these dramatic tornado videos, too. It's great for the ratings.

I don't know if this will change the risks tornado chasers take. It's big business, and money talks. You can take vacation trips in which the general public can chase tornadoes for a week.

I chase the admittedly much milder storms where I live in Vermont myself.  I don't think I take too many unnecessary risks. I won't drive over flooded roads. In the rare cases when we have potentially tornadic supercells, I try to avoid getting myself in the middle of these storms.

But, like so many others, I'm fascinated by big storms, both the garden variety ones in Vermont or the giant ones in Oklahoma.

We have to remember to be careful, but human nature makes it such that some of us will get too close. To our great peril.

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