The Myth that Storm Chasing Saves Lives

Fair-use excerpt for commentary purposes, from Storm Chasers: On the Trail of Deadly Tornadoes by Matt White

Along with book entries, such as the one above, recent media and BLOG stories* have offered the gross and unsupported over-generalization that storm chasers “save lives”. Bullcrap! Look: I used to live in Missouri, and I say, “Show me!”

Patrick Marsh (storm observer and top-caliber young scientist) has suggested quite the opposite so far. As Patrick stated, “more people out saving lives should result in more lives being saved.” Eminently logical, right? But that’s not what has happened. He put that notion to the numerical test.

In his excellent BLOG, Fighting Hyperbole with Data, Patrick has done a fine job of using statistics to indicate that storm chasing hasn’t affected tornado death tolls, nor warning verification metrics, in any detectable way! Please look at his analyses, if you haven’t done so already, before proceeding.

Now that Patrick has covered the “Chasers Save Lives” myth from a numerical standpoint, some personal anecdotes and opinions follow…

I’ve been observing storms and (often, but not always) calling and/or e-mailing storm reports for over a quarter of a century. This covers countless thousands of supercells and hundreds of tornadoes, both for scientific field projects and personal storm observing. I have written and/or contributed to scientific papers (formal examples here, here and here) on that storms I have observed and documented while chasing. Nonetheless, I am no hero and have no scientific or anecdotal justification to pretend to be. I can’t certify for you that I’ve saved a single life by storm observing, or knowledge and research derived therefrom.

All I can do is speculate that my enriched conceptual understanding of severe storms, as a result of directly observing them afield for many years, might help to save lives indirectly via unquantifiable improvements to forecasts that I issue. Does it, in reality? There’s no way to know–except for one single instance (4 May 2003). A couple of days later, a lady in the Kansas City area wrote me to thank me for a “high risk” forecast that she saw online, that got her attention in advance, and that prompted her to locate adequate shelter well in advance of the tornado that hit her place. That’s it…one single event where I can be reasonably sure it made a difference. [That alone is well worth every bit of effort in learning and forecasting, by the way!] Eight years later, this is the first I’ve shared in public about it. Again, it’s nothing heroic…just doing what I’m supposed to. Hundreds of other forecasters are working on shift, as you read this, night or day, unheralded and largely unrecognized, for the same purpose.

The main reason I spend so much of my own time and money observing storms involves a holistic blend of fascination, appreciation, learning, potential research topics, improved forecasting skills, event documentation, honing photography skills, calling in reports at times, and yes, the selfish thrill of the hunt. You bet there’s a selfish element to part of it–and I emphasize, part of it. Any storm chaser who doesn’t admit this is being dishonest by omission. For the record, I do not chase to make money in any way; in fact, I spend far, far more than I’d ever recoup. I don’t sell video, period. Any photos I license are much later, totally incidental and inconsequential to the chase effort itself.

My efforts might have helped some folks over the years. I have advised several people not to drive any farther, as they stopped to ask about a potentially tornadic supercell looming over their itinerary. When a rain-wrapped tornado was about to cross Interstate 80 last year near Hampton, Nebraska, I stopped shooting photos long enough to wave down some motorists who were driving that direction, on the other side of the road. I don’t know if that “saved lives” or not; but I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim that it did. There’s no way to say for sure.

None of this makes me a hero or “life saver” either! When in the field, I’m just a storm observer–one person among many out there with a deep, lifelong passion for severe and unusual weather. That’s it…nothing more, nothing less, nothing special…and not heroic!

Providing reports to NWS is nothing heroic either. It’s simply the right thing to do, in reciprocal service to those who bring us the data we use to chase in the first place. It’s important, it’s informative, it’s helpful documentation…but by in large, it is still not “life saving”. Somebody portraying it as some amazing accomplishment, deserving of lavish laud, merely is pandering to an ignorant audience.

Real-time chaser reports can aid the warning process in some cases where native storm spotters either aren’t there, or aren’t seeing the event as well. That’s a good thing…keep it up! Good for you! Good for NWS! Getting storm reports in, whether in real time or later, helps meteorologists understand what’s happening and what has happened, which does help event verification. But any effect on saving lives is indirect and unknown, at best. Don’t falsely advertise your reporting as anything more than what it is–providing storm observations.

Here’s one litmus test for storm chasers’ purpose out there with regard to”saving lives”. Never–I mean not once since the mid-1980s–have I heard a single chaser say anything like, “I’m headed out to Woodward today to call in storm reports to the weather service.” That’s right, never. Have you? That alone speaks volumes about storm-chaser priorities. Reporting is just not the primary, or in many cases secondary or tertiary, motivation. Anyone who says otherwise in an interview is either delusional or deliberately lying.

Storm chasers are there to see storms, regardless of the stated reason. All else is tangential. Those of us who drive out to observe (“chase”) storms, on a regular basis, are there because we are either:

    1. Passionately interested in the phenomena for learning’s and appreciation’s sake;

    2. Driven to behold and document (via photos/video) the beauty and power of nature;

    3. Conducting legitimate scientific research that actually will be published in real science papers (such as the now-completed V.O.R.T.EX. projects);

    4. Operating any of a growing fleet of for-profit storm tours;

    5. A member of for-profit TV media, seeking live tornado footage;

    6. Pseudoscientific posers, pretending to collect data for the sake of “science”–but never have published a damn thing with that “data” in the peer-reviewed literature;

    7. Adrenaline junkies desperately trying to get high on the thrillseeking rush (far more people than will admit to it!),

    8. Stroking the ego trip of publicity and recognition,

    9. Posers in another way, trying to see and be seen, to show off (such as a vehicles festooned with unused weather instruments or unnecessary lights); and/or

    10. Out to get the “money shot” video footage of somebody’s home or town being blasted apart–this, to me, is absolutely diabolical, inhumane, greedy, and deranged! Far fewer will admit to this than those who actually do have such motivations in reality.

    11. Some combination of the above.

Yes, there are a few very isolated and unrepresentative incidents where chasers have helped to save lives. On a tiny few occasions, a tiny few chasers have aided with search and rescue efforts, or called in a report that nobody else did just before the town got hit.

I am convinced, for example, that Jason Persoff and Robert Balogh, licensed medical doctors who chased the Joplin supercell, saved many lives by stopping the chase and joining in triage treatment of numerous victims of that deadliest tornado of this century. Using their skills as physicians, they voluntarily put in hours and hours of grueling, messy, bloody, exhausting work, pro bono. For doing this, Jason and Robert are heroes to me, even though they wouldn’t characterize themselves such. To Jason, he simply was doing what’s right, as compelled by his specialized knowledge, his oath, and duty to humanity.

Such altruism and unadulterated selflessness is so unrepresentative of storm chasing, as a whole, as to be laughably misleading in the form of generalizations like the one pictured above. Who else has done what Jason and Robert have? Why should others, who does far less tangible life-saving action than Jason, act like life-saving bigshots? Self-portrayed heroism in storm chasing is absolutely unjustified, a big fat lie.

Extremely isolated events (like Jason’s, and a handful of search/rescue ops by qualified chaser-EMTs) aside, the idea that chasers “save lives” is just bogus! Unmitigated BS. I’m tired of seeing people arrogantly touting themselves as heroes because they’re chasing and calling in reports. The great majority of time, that’s accomplished by the spotters already in the area. There’s no proof of chasers “saving lives”, except in quite rare and specific incidents that don’t support the sweeping generalization.

If you’re making yourself out to be a hero, you’re not one. I have to wonder sometimes…

Where is the humility in the world of storm chasing?

The main benefits accomplished by chasers, over the decades when video was fairly rare, was to provide footage for spotting and research interests. That has helped us all to understand storms better. Many meteorologist-chasers (including me) have published scientific papers based on their observations. [This doesn’t make us heroes either, just successful field researchers.] The returns are diminishing fast on that, as video and photos have saturated the market (both commercially and conceptually), and understanding improves beyond that which can be seen visually. There’s precious little that is new to the science that is being documented in video form anymore.

Bottom line: If you are a storm chaser who “saves lives”, then I’m calling your bluff, right here, right now. Prove it. Otherwise, cut the crap, shut your trap, and quit your pompous preening for the TV cameras and news reporters.

* FOOTNOTE: Here are some of the many stories and sources that offer the myth:

  1. From a purported science writer for CNN, featuring a chaser who was “well know [sic] on the popular show on Discovery Channel, Storm Chasers.”
  2. AP, via USA Today
  3. Los Angeles Times
  4. Wiki Answers entry: “How does [sic] storm chasers saves lives?”
  5. Branson News


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