Storm-chase Live Streaming and Fresh Tragedy

Bits and pieces of an entry solely about storm-chaser live streaming have been swirling in my head for some time now — partly inspired, ironically enough, by recent years’ viewing of live streams of one of the chasers (Kelley Williamson) who died in the crash near Spur, TX, two afternoons ago. I did not know he and his chase partner personally but had enjoyed the high-quality streams they often produced, other aspects aside (below). Please offer prayers for their families and for the family of Corbin Yeager, in this awful time for all of them.

I’m not an avid watcher of storm-chasing live streams, mainly because I’m out there observing supercells myself on just about every off-day when the occasion presents itself. In that scenario, usually being the driver, I’m watching the road, not a cell-phone feed of a live stream.

Live-streaming storm-chase video can be beneficial, done thoughtfully and with benevolent motivation, if performed by responsible storm observers who are experts in storm behavior and morphology (mostly, but not entirely, degreed meteorologists), and further, willing to educate their viewers on the features seen as safely possible (i.e., while parked with video pointed the right direction).

At work, as time has permitted, I have caught opportunistic glimpses of streams from several chasers whose electronically geolocated “beacon” icons appear in areas relative to a storm that offer insightful views of its appearance and behavior. This is when a storm tells its own story through the lens of a video-broadcasting spotter of sorts — offering insights about the atmospheric conditions around it, especially in snapshot intervals every so often to see how it has changed. In that sense, video streams have helped with forecast decisions, and have revealed the presence of a tornado or large hail before local storm reports or chat reports of ground truth arrive from warning offices. I’ve lost count, in fact, of the times I’ve seen a tornado on a live stream before the LSR or chat affirmation came out. In this regard, the vastly over-used canard about storm chasing “helping science” is true — just a little, for a very brief bit.

On a few occasions, I’ve called or chatted a forecast office to mention a tornado seen on streaming video, about which they did not know yet. [Why the chaser himself didn’t bother to report it, while in such good cell signal to support streaming, is a good question, one best asked of that chaser.] In observing chats at work and and listening to HAM radio broadcasts between spotters and offices while afield, I’ve heard several instances where live streams helped the warning process by either alerting directly to a tornado or other severe-weather phenomenon, or verifying an existing warning. Running streams also help to show home-bound folks, weather fanatics, or just the curious, what storm observing really is like: many miles and hours of rather mundane driving and clouds, punctuated by fleeting few moments here and there of amazing severe weather.

Granted, I do not live-stream video from the field, due to knowing my limits in terms of minimizing distractions and nuisances of multiple pieces of equipment and connections. Electronics and I generally do not get along well. Port this, codec that, this not “handshaking” with that, interferences, wires here and there and everywhere, error this, failure that, “Dammit this ain’t working!”…no. I experienced that mess for a couple springs in the early 2000s, and it’s not for me anymore. I observe storms for fascination, awe, learning, documentation, appreciation, and photography — not aggravation. My gear is very minimalist, consisting of paper maps, still cameras (not even video anymore), and a smart-phone (no texting or hand-held calls while driving!). Any more than that is too much.

Moreover, and most of all, the road demands top attentive priority while moving, and rightly so. I am absolutely not immune from error and have committed mistakes! The two times I have hydroplaned off the road, in 1999 and 2003, both in or near Lubbock, were results not of inattention, but driving too fast for conditions (regardless of being under posted speed limit). I have chosen not to add the distraction of monitoring a video feed due to thusly limited multitasking and technological ability. For those who can leave live streams running while driving, essentially autonomously and without direct intervention by the driver, I say: go for it. The practice has been a net positive, despite what I’ll type below.

Some live-stream video for money’s or ego’s sake, to get paid to find the XTREME INSANE up-close footage, to revel in adulation or to soak merrily in the ego boost of getting a name on a far-away TV screen. These are manifestations not of technology, but personality disorders. Such behavior and misplaced priorities are but microcosms of society at large, brought to bear in a small subset of storm chasing. I’ve ranted about “yahoo” activity as far back as the 1990s and don’t care to regurgitate all that here. Yet I will say that motivation does matter — the rush to get here or there to capture the XTREME INSANE scene can lead to reckless behavior, especially when layered on ignorance of the storm, poor road conditions, driver inattention, and overconfidence on one’s own knowledge and abilities. Those I know who are motivated artistically or experientially (as opposed to monetarily or for recognition) almost never are the same ones acting like yahoos! My experiences with fellow scientists afield are mixed; most chase responsibly, while some have behaved like raving idiots. So yes, some motivations for chasing and video streaming are safer, better, more valuable, more beneficial to other people, and more worthy than others. Does that statement bother you? If so, deal with it: look squarely in the mirror and examine why.

Live-streaming reveals not only insightful aspects about storm behavior, but also, chaser behavior. Like it or not, when you live-stream, you are setting an example. Act accordingly. Sometimes the example is terrible, and it shows.

I’ve seen first-hand, on several occasions, and many more secondhand reports of, storm chasers of all experience levels running stop signs and red lights, passing uphill and in other no-passing zones, speeding at obviously over 100 mph, trespassing on private ranch roads, and other patently dangerous and reckless behavior. With mixed results, I’ve called out such actions privately to a few chasers, and will go to peers, law enforcement, and/or public if I notice a chronic problem. We storm observers don’t need our mostly good names tarnished by the idiocy of a small minority, nor our friends and colleagues injured or killed by others’ habitual recklessness. This isn’t about perfection, which none of us can claim honestly, but obvious and wanton recklessness.

[NOTE: This section largely was typed but not posted before the most recent incident.]

Back now to the latest deadly incident. Before anyone starts into it, the “too soon” tone trolls are not allowed to stifle my opinions, so don’t bother. I’ll decide when it’s “too soon” for me to write. After viewing the final live stream, it’s not. Though I didn’t know him, I wish I had said something to Kelley after catching one of his feeds at the right time to notice his or his driver’s running a stop sign on a couple of chases last year. My excuse: got distracted, forgot…moved on to other things. How much more did I not happen to see? Would making the time to say something while it was still fresh in mind have prevented tragedy? Maybe, maybe not. The worst that can happen is being ignored or told off (water off a ducks’ back for me). From what I’ve heard, he was a great guy, easy to get along with; maybe he would have taken seriously a note out of the blue from a well-known severe-storms meteorologist and decades-experienced storm observer, saying in effect: hey man, I saw that. I care. Somebody could get killed. Cut it out. For all of us…

The issue of dangerous chaser behavior is nothing new at all; in fact here’s a two-decade-old essay by Chuck Doswell and me. Not only will this tragedy cause me to rededicate to road safety, but whatever inhibition I had about calling out bad field behavior (first to the chaser, then to the public if reaction and results are not favorable) are hereby gone. If we don’t police ourselves, those with much less passion for and understanding of the hobby will take it upon themselves to police us. If that happens, guess what: I’ll exercise my American right to volunteer my “inside knowledge” to help the cops and legislators to do so. Read into that whatever you will. If it prevents more of this carnage, more deaths of innocents like young Mr. Jaeger (who was struck at that intersection and died instantly, as the above story notes), so be it, even at my own personal inconvenience.

The choice is yours, mine, ours…we act, we put a brake on this nonsense. Otherwise, some won’t like what will need to happen, and what I’ll support, with full focus and prime credibility to back it up.

Next will appear a guest column more focused that crash, by a friend who cares…


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