Tornado Chasers and TV Networks

Over the past two weeks, the Oklahoma City area has been hit by two tragic tornados, and although the first one was more deadly, the second one provides us with the more important lessons.

In the first one, which struck the city of Moore, was classified as in the most powerful range (EF-5). The largest cluster of deaths were, unfortunately, eight people in a school that took a direct hit. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They staff of the school did its best to keep everyone safe, but there was no tornado shelter.

What bothered me most about the news coverage was the focus on people who picked their kids up at school and went driving away. These people were not smart, but lucky, since they actually put their kids at greater risk.

I had to wonder if that coverage was responsible for the large number of people out on the road in the most recent outbreak. As noted meteorologist Matt Daniel notes in his blog at EarthSky, eight of the nine people who died during that outbreak were in cars.

That outbreak splashed this picture of the Weather Channel Tornado Hunt 2013 car that was caught in a tornado all over the Internet. Fortunately, the reporters survived, not because of skill but pure luck. Tim Samaras of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, his son, and storm chaser Carl Young, were not so lucky. They lost their lives when a storm cell blossomed into a tornado that they were unable to escape.

The fact that major networks see fit to have tornado chase cars is an important issue. Professional tornado chasing should have only one purpose: research. If Tim was doing research, then he lost his life taking a risk he understood for benefits he also understood. But if he was doing it for a TV network, then you have to question the value of his activity. Those deaths will be in vain if we don’t learn from them, and that requires asking the hard question about his motivation. That is not disrespectful, but it is painful, especially in the moment. We need to acknowledge both the pain and the importance.

Did Samaras need network money to fund his research and thus take unnecessary risks? If so, that says a lot about the state of meteorology research funding. I will be looking for information that sheds light on why he took a risk that ultimately cost him his life.

But I have little doubt that about the journalistic value of having storm chasers. It is zero. Having a storm-chasing vehicle allows the networks to get sensational images that add nothing to the news story but attract “eyeballs”. First responders don’t permit journalists to enter burning buildings because of the pointless risk to themselves and the possibility that they will get in the way of the firefighters. The same should be true in the case of storm chasing by networks.

7 thoughts on “Tornado Chasers and TV Networks”

  1. Tim Samaras’ loss leaves a raw and painful void in tornado research. There is literally no one else in my field who possesses the multifaceted portfolio of expertise in engineering, science, writing, videography, and entertainment that he did. I am still gobsmacked at the news of his passing, and stunned to hear that it occurred so close to us. But the grief of the severe weather research and storm chaser communities can only pale in comparison to the grief endured by their families and friends. My deepest sympathies go out to the Samaras and Young families. They can take comfort in knowing that Tim Samaras and his crew were a class act, universally well-respected, and represented the best of our community.

  2. I think that it comes down to science versus scenic. When i was out storm chasing, for me, it was always scenic. Just to be able to see a tornado, have video of one and share my experience. The science in chasing storms is what is under debate here think. My wife and i live in North Georgia and SO many times when a warning has been issued for this area, we would take cover and go through the procedures of being ready for a tornado that could possibly be headed our way. And nothing would happen. The radar would show rotation for the area but nothing is on the ground. Chasers confirm if an actual tornado is on the ground or not and i know that the more that is known about these storms the more we can learn from them. Thus the experiments and the placement of equipment set in the path of these storms. God bless the men that were killed this past Friday and their family’s. Such a tragic event. To have another video of another tornado is pointless. What i use to do was pointless and dangerous and i should have NEVER put my life at risk for the right to say “I filmed a tornado on the ground”. I do not chase anymore. I will leave that to the scientist and the crews who have the equipment and the training for this. My life is worth more than a piece of film that might be on the 6pm news cast.

  3. The Storm Chaser’s series was cancelled after the 2011 storm season, and none of Tim Samaras’ funding had come from a television network for the past two years. He received research grants from typical sources (government and industry) and the National Geographic Society; as he had also done during the years he was one of the three or four teams featured on Storm Chasers. Mr. Samaras’ positioning probes for in-situ measurements of tornadoes was only one of his research programs (and the only one featured on Storm Chasers); and he had done that before the series featured him as well as since then. He also researched (I believe for composites manufacturers supplying the aviation industry) the response of various materials to large hail; and ultra-high-speed photography of lightning.

  4. I just found and approved three comments. For some reason I never got notice that they were pending my approval. One was even in my spam folder, but I can’t understand why.

    I apologize to the delay in posting.

  5. How has storm chasing changed over time? When the pioneers of storm chasing got started, weather data was difficult to get and not much was known about storms. During the 1970’s, the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory began mobile storm research programs — the most notable of which was to deploy an instrumented package known as TOTO (totable tornado observatory) in the path of a tornado to verify Doppler-observed winds. It was during the 1970’s when private storm chasing began catching on, and in 1977 a small newsletter called Storm Track was started. In the early 1980’s, mobile storm research was covered by the television program “In Search Of” and later, “Nova.” By the mid to late 1980’s, many of the mobile storm research programs had ended (and TOTO was retired). Nowadays, with the exception of the recent VORTEX project, mobile storm research is confined mainly to performing precision portable radar observations to learn more about the small-scale structure of thunderstorms. Chasing as recreation, however, is blooming due to increased exposure and renewed interest through the media. Chasing has also become increasingly commercialized by hot competition for extreme storm video, increasing numbers of TV and radio station chase crews, pro photographers searching for the award-winning sky view, and even a few “safari-style” storm chase tour operations .

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