On the Operational Usefulness of Live Storm-Chase Video Streams

A few weeks ago, I provided the following text (minus a few minor updates) as parts of two comments on a BLOG entry by Chuck Doswell, and in response to other commenters. Since it’s a marginally related topic to that post, worthy of stand-alone status, here you go…

The whole idea that these Discovery TV chasers’ in-situ tornado data “improves warnings” is just plain bogus–not only for research-related reasons discussed by Chuck, but in real-time warning situations also. None of the actual measurement data that are being collected in and near tornadoes is getting to the NWS watch or warning forecasters immediately, if ever!


What is being used for real-time warnings instead (besides radar and, in some cases, mesoanalysis)?

1. Visual reports of wall clouds, funnel clouds and tornadoes via SpotterNetwork and HAM radio as a part of standard storm-spotting operations that already exist anyway, and
2. Increasingly, live video-streaming of salient storm features from chasers and spotters so equipped.

Many NWS forecasters actually pay attention to live streams, at least to the extent that approved software and bandwidth allow. Live-streaming from chasers can be a valuable warning and awareness tool. In some very specific circumstances, live streams have become a vital part of the Integrated Warning System. It helps, of course, if the camera is pointed at the storm and its structure–not zoomed in on only the base of a tornado, and not showing irrelevant crap such as the windshield wipers in a rain core.

The fact that there are video streams from those chasers who have the spending money, functional equipment, cell coverage, available bandwidth and technical acumen to set them up, is a positive trend. I have used them at my unnamed workplace to get a good read on storm-scale morphology and structure, which offers valuable environmental clues, and in turn, definitely benefits me as a forecaster. Considering how most of the best tornadic storms in “Chase Alley” tend to happen when I’m on evening shift, this is the only way I get to see them in near real-time anyway! 🙂 I also have used live feeds, both at home and work, to report a few tornadoes via phone or chat to offices whose extremely busy staff wasn’t yet aware of them. In that and other indirect ways, perhaps they have helped to prevent casualties. We just can’t prove yes or no.

That said, live-streaming has its setbacks and troubles, and needs improvement before it can reap full benefit to the storm-warning process. I know of at least one office that hasn’t installed Silverlight due to “security;” so those videos that require that particular brand of software simply won’t be visible. Some offices also start to lose bandwidth when viewing video streams through a shared, regional Internet choke-point; so the practice has been discouraged in a few places. Yes, they should do those upgrades, but until then…what?

Even discounting the problems on the operational forecast side, video streaming can be done MUCH more efficiently and usefully than at present from the provider’s end. Here’s how:

* All video streaming output should be consolidated into ONE platform (not three!), for simplicity’s sake, with
* No special software, subscriptions, passwords or plug-ins needed, and as such,
* Viewable as-is, live, from any of the major browsers (MSIE, Firefox, Chrome, etc.).

Simplicity and ease of use are critically important in watch and warning decision situations, where seconds count. Anyone who has sat on the warning desk or issued severe storm watches knows this. The forecaster shouldn’t be expected to juggle multiple windows or browser tabs, nor compound his/her frustration in an already intense situation by hassling with errors such as, “This video requires Special Plugin X. Please install Special Plugin X in order to view this video,” or, “Please enter login and password below.”

I strongly encourage the producers and hosts of live stream services to join together to solve these problems on their own, in time for the 2011 chase season, and in a way that surely would be far more timely, efficient and user-friendly than any molasses-slow, over-regulated approach that could be attempted by the government.


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