Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 12, 2013

Forum: Remember why we chase big storms


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — By David Call

The death of storm chaser Tim Samaras has shaken the meteorological community. He was recently killed in the middle of a chase in Oklahoma, but he will always be remembered as a scientist first and storm chaser second - helping improve our knowledge of storms in order to make our lives safer.

But the loss of Samaras and his team is a reminder that storm chasing is dangerous.

With radar applications for smartphones, precision storm warnings and GPS devices, it seems as if anyone can jump in a car and find tornadoes. However, this is akin to thinking one can rewire a house by purchasing electrical supplies and going online for instructions.

People interested in storm chasing should, at minimum, take a class, read books about safely and find an experienced partner. They should respect basic safety rules such as never chase in cities, at night, or in areas with hills and trees that can obstruct lines of sight.

Finally, as the events leading up to Samaras’ death revealed, chasers should maintain a safe distance and have escape routes mapped out in case a storm suddenly changes direction.

You might ask: Why not give up chasing entirely?

Even with the dangers, there are good reasons to get as close as we safely can to these meteorological monsters. Chasing is still one of the best methods for researchers to collect data. While we understand the large-scale factors that cause super cells, meteorologists still are learning why some storms produce tornadoes while others do not. There is no way to measure this environment without going to the storms and deploying equipment.

Not all storm chasers are doing research, of course. There are other reasons - some laudable, some not - to pursue tornadoes. Some serve as spotters for the Weather Service and feed information to the media - often providing crucial warnings needed to save lives. Others brave the storms to teach future meteorologists. Some, however, lead tours to cater to the curious, and some simply chase to view nature’s power up close.

American meteorologist Chuck Doswell has been worried for years about the growth of chasing and the risks involved. Since the 1990s, he’s been warning that it would only be a matter of time until one of us would die.

Last week, his worst fears were realized. Tim Samaras’ death showed that even experienced professionals can wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So, here’s advice to the chasers: Respect the storm. Avoid cities, avoid night chases and remember that it is better to miss a tornado than to risk your life. Some tornadoes and storms are simply not chaseable. You just have to write them off.

About the author: Dave Call has been at Ball State University since 2007 and teaches classes in physical geography, elementary meteorology, severe local storms and broadcast meteorology. Each spring, he leads students on storm-chasing trips across the Great Plains.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by e-mailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.