Posted: 20 May 2010 Updated: 16 April 2012 ... added more reader input and my response
This is my opinion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell at earthlink.net - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @). However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.
When I began storm chasing in 1972, the only storm chasers I knew about all were my friends, and that was a very small circle, mostly students at OU. Later, I found out there were a few others, like Dave Hoadley. When we chased a storm successfully, it was a pleasant experience when we encountered some of our chase comrades. We jokingly called it 'chaser convergence'. In order to be successful at storm chasing in those days, you had to make your own forecast for severe weather, and you chased your forecast with little hope of obtaining any updated weather information on the way. For our live data updates, we listened to AM radio to hear the static of lightning and when things got going, we hoped to hear the warnings for severe storms. We carried a portable weather radio for when we were within range of a station, and could get some limited information that way. We had to learn to read the sky and try to use our experience to guide the decisions we had to make. We often made poor decisions in the absence of up-to-date information. Many years of my chase vacation proved fruitless; 2-3 weeks of chasing without seeing a single tornado. Thus, I began to discover other things to make the vacation worthwhile - seeing a tornado was a rare treat, not an expectation.
That feeling of fellowship and camaraderie has given way to a sense of loathing and irritation when encountering the 'field of dreams' long line of chasers while following a storm. Rather establishing a connection to the natural world that we used to feel when experiencing a powerful storm, we find ourselves buried in a long line of chasers. It's more like attending a sporting event than a feeling of joy at being embedded deeply in a living world. I regularly experience shame and concern at the behavior of some irresponsible chasers who do things that put all of us in danger. I now find myself wishing to escape the hordes whenever possible. I avoid interacting with these other chasers, most of whom I don't know and don't want to know.
The situation is exacerbated by an influx of locals (some of them 'yahoos'), who add their numbers to the mobs of chasers out on their annual chase vacations, the 'tour' companies giving their clients a chance to experience storm chasing (for a price), media chasers, and the scientists trying to engage in mobile field observations in support of scientific research. It's particularly noticeable in TX, OK, and KS in May and June - if there's an obvious target storm, you can guarantee that swarms of chasers will be buzzing around it like angry hornets. With limited road networks, the crowding has become acute. Technology has made it pretty simple to be a storm chaser - live radar and satellite data in your car, instant communication via cell phone in most areas, Internet access, etc. You don't need to know how to read a weather map and make a forecast - it's all done for you and you simply drive toward the storms you see on radar. The torrent of weather information in advance of severe storms likely is encouraging locals to join the hordes and watch the show! "Hey, Martha, the TV weather guy says a tornado is headed our way. Let's drive out and take a look at it!"
This essay isn't about irresponsible chaser behavior, though. I've discussed that here and here, for example. No need to plow that ground again. No, this essay is about numbers. Large numbers - of chasers. More and more, we hear about first responders who are notably concerned about the chaser hordes, because they impede the first responders in their duties - to say nothing of a few chasers who break the law. Recently, some law enforcement officers have become so angry, they may have overstepped their bounds - when an armed law enforcement officer goes into a rage, it's actually unprofessional. But I think I can understand why they might do so from time to time. This 'pushback' from law enforcement eventually is going to have an impact on storm chasing - mark my words.
Some chasers like to pontificate about how it's their right to do as they please. Excuse me, but you don't have any right to storm chase - it's a privilege, not a civil right! And although any laws against chasing that might be passed by state legislatures are likely to be unenforceable in any consistent way, unenforceable laws already exist on the books and you can be arrested for violating them, like it or not. If you want to make it a constitutional issue, go right ahead!
In a recent blog, I noted that the reasons for people to chase storms are quite diverse. Most of these reasons are basically selfish - chasing is a hobby for most of us, not a job. This year, however, we're in the second year of Vortex2 - a field observational campaign seeking to collect data via mobile systems for tornado research. After events on 19 May, Dr. Josh Wurman, Vortex2 scientist and head of the Center for Severe Weather Research, went on record (via The Weather Channel) regarding the crowds of storm chasers. He stated (this is taken verbatim, including typos, from the TWC website):
We’re trying tostudy tornado genesis so that the warnings are made better. I think that’s more important than gettingclose up video of a tornado but apparently these hundreds of chasers didn’tthink that and they wouldn’t let us by. It’s always easy to say it’s a few bad eggs but no body let us by we hada hundred cars right in front of us there were chase tour companies armaturesout there trying to stay as close as they can to the mess cyclone and notletting the scientists by. I think it’sreally disgraceful they’re not letting us do our important mission.
On the one hand, I agree that scientific research is a vastly more meaningful goal than entertainment. It is indeed disgraceful that chasers blocking access to roads has cost Vortex2 the opportunity to collect their data. I've made a promise not to be anywhere close to storms that Vortex2 is working.
On the other hand, I think Dr. Wurman may be rather off base in his 'request'. After all, his research programs in the past have something of a checkered history when it comes to engaging in responsible storm chasing. And I believe it's unlikely that Dr. Wurman can demand that other chasers simply get out of his way, like Moses parting the Red Sea. Dr. Wurman is a well-respected researcher, but he's not Moses. Nor is he a first responder going about his duties - law enforcement officers are authorized to break laws in the performance of their jobs. I know of no researcher/storm chaser who has that particular blank check. On the contrary, I've argued that researchers should be careful to adhere to the highest possible standards of responsibility, and avoid any hint of disregard for the laws of the road, even if it means that they fail sometimes to obtain the data they need.
Considering the topic of storm chaser mobs, it's important to recall that Dr. Wurman's research has benefited financially from his previous affiliation with the Discovery Channel program "Storm Chasers" - this program implicitly is encouraging viewers to engage in storm chasing by glamorizing it. By the way, this Discovery Channel program continues to slide down into an abyss of disaster porn, soap opera, and sensationalism, rather than being educational. Therefore, it seems rather inconsistent for him to be upset about the crowds of chasers getting in his way. It seems to me that he, and I, bear some responsibility for chaser convergence. Yes, in my naivete as a grad student and storm chaser, I went on and on in interviews about the wonders and value of storm chasing. Little did I realize what I was doing, but I now regret very much increasing public awareness of storm chasing. I no longer do interviews with the media.
Furthermore, I dispute the default assumption that this research is doing a public service by leading to longer lead times. I covered that topic here and here. Ultimately, scientific researchers study storms because of their own selfish interest in storms, and trying to cloak their work in the mantle of 'saving lives' is rather disingenuous and certainly self-serving.
So what can we do about this mess? I see no way out. The roads are open to anyone with a valid driver's license. There are, as yet, no laws against storm chasing. There have been calls for storm chasers to 'police themselves' - if you're acquainted with the breed of 'extreme' storm chasers, good luck with telling them to stop behaving stupidly. Perhaps only Darwin can remove them? Self-policing hasn't worked in the past, it's not working now, and it never will work in the future. If anyone has any ideas, feel free to let me know about them. Recently, someone suggesting a certification program for storm chasers. That's a reasonable idea, but an unworkable one, because
The movie Twister, the crockumentaries on TV, coverage on TWC - all these are continuing to plant the seed in the minds of viewers: "Hey, that looks cool! I think I'll become a storm chaser!" Those seeds come to maturity in the increasing population of storm chasers. The 'golden age' of storm chasing passed sometime in the mid-1980s, I think. Sorry if you missed it. I know of no way to prevent the continuing growth of chaser hordes, at least until some new fad catches people's attention.
Update (22 May 2010): I've gotten a lot of feedback from this essay, almost totally supportive. Today, I received the following from Dr. John Knox, Geography professor at the University of Georgia (lightly edited):
I applaud your 20 May 2010 essay on "Chaser Convergence - An increasing concern."
One of the few aspects of the swelling crowds that you didn't address is the proliferation of official college-sponsored chase teams (or those informally organized at colleges and universities). As documented in my June 2008 BAMS article, undergraduate enrollments and degree recipients in meteorology are apparently at post-World War II highs. From 1993 to 2007, the number of meteorologist B.S. recipients annually in the U.S. doubled. Some of the fastest-growing programs in recent years have, at their cores, stormchase classes and organizations.
I've done additional research on the degree recipient numbers that may help quantify this trend toward chase mentality in academia. A new category in the U.S. Dept. of Education degree-counting called “meteorology” has shot up from 4% of all meteorology/atmospheric science B.S. degrees among 2002-03 recipients to 28% of the total in 2007-08--constituting nearly all of the growth in our field at the B.S. level over that period. The numbers in the other categories, such as “atmospheric sciences and meteorology, general,” “atmospheric sciences and meteorology, other,” and “atmospheric physics and dynamics” have been stagnant in the aggregate. It's my guess that these new, presumably weather-focused "meteorology" programs and their growing numbers of graduates are more likely to be stormchase-oriented than those classified as “atmospheric physics and dynamics.”
We would like to think that college-organized chases would be more educational and more responsibly run than others, but that’s an assumption that may not always verify upon inspection. Also, given the employment situation outlined in my BAMS article, these programs are likely producing quite a few graduates who are, or soon will become, chase hobbyists with a lot of time on their hands. So, even if the college-organized chases are a very good thing in small numbers, they may not be good in bulk quantity. As you say, your blog is about numbers, large numbers.
Even at schools without stormchasing at their cores, the media coverage of stormchasing can distort priorities. I have observed first-hand the power that the “crockumentary” chase shows exert over the imaginations of some of my own seniors in atmospheric science at the University of Georgia. You may also be aware of the new textbook Extreme Weather & Climate by Ahrens and Samson, which is apparently based on (quoting here from the Cengage blurb) “…an Extreme Weather course at the University of Michigan that is the fastest-growing science course at the university.”
Is the proliferation of chase mentality in academia also part of the problem you’ve examined in your essay, and is it also worthy of increasing concern?
An interesting point. I suppose anything that causes more chasers to be on the roads is worthy of concern. However, here's my problem with this comment: how can I, of all people, condemn such programs? I benefited tremendously from storm chasing when I was a graduate student. It made a number of valuable contributions to my education:
In what way can I deny upcoming meteorology students the same opportunity? Even if I had the power to control those academic programs, which I don't, I simply couldn't come out against academically-organized storm chasing. Of course, such chase experiences need to be conducted responsibly - in my chasing experience, I have seen many irresponsible things perpetrated by the leaders of some of these programs. When chasing is done responsibly, and in a way that doesn't detract from academics, the positive value of chasing for students is something in which I've believed ever since I was a grad student.
Update (23 May 2010): More feedback, this time from Rich Thompson (Storm Prediction Center) (lightly edited):
Like you, I benefited tremendously from the insights gained while chasing. Chasing was a way to put my money where my mouth was, and it forced me to get better as a forecaster. That has carried over into my professional career. I've used chasing experiences as motivation for improved forecasting techniques, as well as projects designed to translate into better forecasts.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of chasers are not out there for anything other than themselves. Is there any tangible benefit to the chase tours, other than making money for the operators and creating more future chasers? How many of the students that enroll in the guided chaser courses go on to make any meaningful impact in meteorology?
It would be hypocritical of me to say I chase for other than personal reasons - because my reasons are essentially personal. Naturally, I'm still a scientist, even though I'm chasing for myself. Thus, each year's increment of experience contributes indirectly through my science. What I try to do, though, as any responsible chaser should do, is to give something back to the society that supports my hobby. That can take various forms, including but not limited to, calling in reports, either in real time or after the fact.
I can't say very much about the contributions of participants in academic chase programs. I'd be surprised if quite a few students haven't gone on to make some sort of contribution, though certainly not all of them. Nor can I speak to the majority of participants in chase tours. I think several of the guests on the tour I accompany have made various kinds of contributions. For example, one of my very first clients has gone to obtain a doctorate in meteorology and is now working at NCAR, studying MCSs. There are many ways to have a positive impact besides becoming a meteorologist, of course. I also know that several of our clients have decided chasing isn't for them, once they found out what it was really like.
The majority of private chasers now seem to shun formal meteorological training and instead focus on the "look at me" aspect of chasing through publicity/exposure.
No argument there ... although chasers all have their own personal reasons for chasing and I'd not want to be accused of tarring everyone with the same brush. There certainly do seem to be a lot of attention-seekers out there.
There's little reason to expect any improvement because we're creating an even larger rush of future chasers through all of the current exposure. More and more kids in high school are starting to chase as soon as they can drive, and well before they can possibly have any true understanding of the atmosphere. The numbers might stabilize once it becomes such a pain in the butt to chase that it's not worth the effort. However, who will be the ones to give up? The more responsible veteran chasers with links to the past, that's my guess!
You may be right. Chasing has a finite lifetime, if we can't develop alternatives to fossil fuel-running internal combustion engines for our chase vehicles. The time could come when a private vehicle becomes unaffordable to many. My crystal ball doesn't let me see if or when such a barrier to free chasing will develop.
The minute formal meteorological training was no longer a benefit as a chaser was the minute that chasing was doomed to total saturation.
I think this might be a little hyperbolic, but it's a legitimate point.
I also chose not to chase on 14 April 2012. I must admit that chaser convergence, when many of the chasers seem to be bozos in one form or another, is killing my desire to chase. I see the great images and video some people are posting and it makes me want to be there to witness and record these events, but - not so much that I want to put up with the nonsense that Matt has described. I understand and support his concerns. It seems to me that for many chasers, it's become a contest to obtain the wildest 'near-miss' video, the most tornadoes, the best photograph. They are clearly doing this for some sort of ego trip, not a genuine interest in storms. Chasing, for them, is about them! Some things I see many young chasers doing that I will never, never do: