The tragic death of noted weather researcher and former Discovery Channel storm chaser Tim Samaras has shaken all of us in the meteorological community. He was one of three people killed in the middle of a chase last week in Oklahoma, but he will always be remembered as a scientist first and storm chaser second — someone who helped improve our knowledge of tornadoes and lightning in order to make our lives safer.
But the loss of Samaras and his team is a tragic reminder that storm chasing is a dangerous pursuit.
With the advent of radar applications for smartphones, precision storm warnings and GPS devices, it may seem as if anyone can simply jump in a car and easily find tornadoes. However, this is akin to thinking one can rewire a house by purchasing electrical supplies and doing an online search for instructions.
People interested in storm chasing should, at minimum, take a storm-spotting class, read several books about chasing safely and find an experienced partner. They should also respect basic safety rules such as never chasing 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 chase and get as close as we safely can to these meteorological monsters. Unfortunately, chasing is still one of the best methods for weather researchers to collect data about tornadoes. While we understand the large scale factors that cause supercell thunderstorms, meteorologists still are learning why some storms produce tornadoes while others do not. There is simply no good way to measure the near-storm environment without going to the storms themselves and deploying equipment.
Not all storm chasers are doing research, of course. There are other reasons — some laudable, some not — to pursue tornadoes. Some chasers serve as severe weather spotters for the Weather Service and feed information to the news media to alert the public — often providing crucial warnings needed to save lives. Others brave the storms to teach classes of future meteorologists. Some, however, lead tours to cater to the curious, and some simply chase to view nature’s power up close and take videos to post online.
American meteorologist Chuck Doswell, who helped develop the concept of the supercell, has been worried for some time 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 be killed chasing a storm.
Last week, his worst fears were realized. Tim Samaras’ death showed that even experienced, conservative professionals can make mistakes and wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So, here’s a little advice to the chasers, experienced or otherwise: Please respect the storm. Avoid cities, avoid night chases and remember that it is better to miss a tornado than to risk your life or your property. Some tornadoes and storms are simply not chaseable, and you just have to write them off.
When people ask if a chase was successful, the best response is, “No one was killed or injured, so it was a success.” More than getting photos, videos or even scientific data, that should be our top priority: returning everyone safely home.
Dave Call has been at Ball State 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.