Dealing with the Storm Hordes

I could complain about the growing crowds around supercells until my face turns blue, and it won’t matter…so I won’t. I’ll simply state the problem as it appears: Storm chasing has gotten too big.

What’s the solution? Other than some form of testing and licensing, which practically is unenforceable, or some sort of credentials-based allowance for nonresidents (which I like in concept, but which probably is unconstitutional and nearly unenforceable), I don’t have one. I’m not willing to stop doing it, and neither are far too many other people.

The roads are too small, the vehicles too numerous, the selfish highway behavior increasingly rampant, especially in very tightly focused target situations such as discrete supercells in a central Oklahoma “High Risk” in May (example). It’s no coincidence, either, that several so-called “professional” storm chasers exhibit the most unprofessional behavior around storms. Not only that, they do so for the whole world to see, as if it were a badge of honor to act like delirious morons with Red Bull coursing through their veins. We even see some chasers deliberately targeting nighttime situations, in forested areas with hills east of the Plains–a geo-meteorological juxtaposition of unsafe conditions that storm observers 20 years ago wouldn’t have considered whatsoever.

On discussion fora online, some folks have stated they will chase less, or not at all. That’s fine with me; but for each such decision, I guarantee there will be two or three others–less-experienced chaser-wannabe’s–to replace them, for a net gain in road crowds, and net loss of safety and understanding.

One recently trendy “solution” seems to be going after later, lesser or so-called “secondary” targets on purpose. The notion is noble, but the problematic reality is two-fold:

1. When a potential storm day is tightly focused, and the desire is to witness the most awesome spectacle the atmosphere can provide, the “other area” might be too conditional or marginal to risk missing the big show. Lots of lip service is paid in advance to “alternative” targets by some of the same chasers who I know end up on the main storm(s) of the day. Talk is cheap. Action is what matters. In forecast mode, take such proclamations with a grain of salt, unless you really are one of the few storm observers (like Mike Umscheid) who are well-known to actively target the alternative play, then actually do what they say. I give Mike all the credit in the world for aiming away from the main concentration on many occasions, and still coming away from the chase day with spectacular photography.

2. Eventually, even the secondary storms, alternative targets and more remote areas like the Dakotas and Montana will become popular and overused, much as alternative music went mainstream in the 1990s. Even on a spread-out day from central Nebraska to central Texas, even a small minority of the total existence of chasers trying to drive to and around the storms would cause crowding in some “secondary” areas, despite with an unevenly skewed distribution of chasers toward the more obvious targets. If we see 5,000 vehicles distributed among ten storms, that’s an average of 500 per storm! Where does this level off? When the alternatives become too popular, then what?

The answers are unknown and entirely speculative. Higher petrol prices may thin the crowds out somewhat; but more die-hards than it may seem (including me) simply will sacrifice other expenditures in life to keep on pursuing amazing vantages of storms. The crowds (and occasional overcrowding) seem inevitable, sometimes inescapable. The demise of transportation itself (i.e., the end of civilization as we know it) seems to be the only end to storm-chase crowding.

Several local constabularies and at least a couple of state highway patrols already have road-blockade policies in place to stop all vehicles (including chasers) from approaching “unsafe” storms, under powers of emergency action. More likely will follow. Storm observers should self-police before more of these jurisdictions (and ultimately, state-level politicians) try it for us.

This is no realm for social cowardice. We can and should call out those who engage in egregiously dangerous and unsafe practices, whether once or on a regular basis. Storm observing inherently is somewhat unsafe, and I know nobody (self included) who hasn’t made a mistake of judgment. Everyone should be held responsible for what they do, me included. By sheer number of reckless and dangerous actions, this applies most of all to the chronic, egregious violators of law, common sense, and courtesy.

This year, my request for chasers is simple: Around those roadways, please drive, park and position yourself and your equipment with modesty and consideration for others in mind. And be willing to sacrifice the “money shots” for another day, if getting that footage is unsafe for or disrespectful to someone else.

After all, it’s not about me, or you, or money, or recognition anyway…it’s about the storms.


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