by Rich Thompson and Roger Edwards
(Revised Dec 98, Mar 2000 and Jan 2004, with May 2011 epilogue)
In the many years since some of the longtime storm chasers started in the '70s (including Al Moller, Chuck Doswell, Gene Moore, Howie Bluestein, etc.), and in the several decades since the early pioneers first chased (such as David Hoadley and Neil Ward), storm chasing has evolved from an obscure scientific hobby to a full- blown media spectacle. If you don't know what we mean, spend one active May storm day in the vicinity of Oklahoma City! Heated debates have raged in the classrooms, in Storm Track, and over the Weather Chase computer news on who should and shouldn't be "allowed" to chase. Since this is a free country, we choose instead to focus on the changing motivations we observe in many chasers, and the real threats posed to the future of storm chasing as we know it.
The primary threats to storm chasing, in our opinion, remain greed and recklessness. Much attention has been directed to "storm chaser etiquette" and "storm chaser safety," and rightfully so. We fear, along with many others, severe injury or death to a chaser could compel the various law enforcement agencies to adopt a no-tolerance policy toward suspected chasers. Think this is far-fetched? Read about respected chaser Jon Davies' disturbing experience from back in 1993! Additionally, we see common greed destroying the foundation that real chasing was built upon -- a respect for the power of atmospheric processes and a desire to learn more through direct observations. You do not have to be a "degreed" meteorologist to fit in this category. You do need to be willing to give something of yourself, though, by sharing pictures and video, storm observations, severe weather reports, forecast methodology, etc.
In the past 10-15 years the situation seems to have taken many turns for the worse. The proliferation of video cameras has allowed many individuals to record interesting severe storm phenomena, and it has also made many chasers see dollar "$$$" signs while shooting such video! For example, the evening of 5 May 1993 included a tremendous supercell that moved from the Texas panhandle to southwest Kansas. The storm produced several significant tornadoes, and brought up many interesting meteorological and chase-related questions. Instead of discussing the day's forecast and intercept logistics after the chase, many individuals engaged in a video "land rush" of sorts. Kansas police not only had to worry about a violent tornado, but about reckless chasers. As a result, one of the unquestionably good guys of storm chasing paid the price (as you read above). Also, problems with traffic congestion ruined the later part of the storm for others. A spectacular storm with tornadoes of many shapes and sizes was reduced to nothing more than a handful of cash for 5 seconds of video on the nightly news.
We have each sold some video in the distant past, and we don't necessarily condemn those who do so today. However, we have both made changes to the way we chase -- out of principle, simplicity and practicality. Video now serves only to document our observations and preserve the memory of the chase, not to fatten our bank accounts. Those who insist on chasing as a commercial venture threaten the integrity of the pastime as a whole, and overshadow scientific contributions made by many chasers through the decades. Now that we have the Weather Channel, the Internet, TV "chase teams," and frequent media specials on chasing, we feel it is imperative that all chasers re-evaluate their motivation. Just like most other things these days, chasing needs to be protected if it is to survive as an enjoyable hobby and productive contributor to the science of meteorology. That protection is up to us.
Here are some simple steps to slow the cancer's spread:
First, do not publicly glamorize chasing. The truth -- which you should tell all those who want to know about chasing -- is that it consists mostly of long drives, non-tornadic storms, and unsuccessful forecasts.
Second, share your video and photography with those who appreciate your efforts and can benefit from your experiences -- especially NWS offices, spotters, and educational programs.
Third, unless you can't pay the bills any other way, don't get into the bad habit of selling storm footage or soliciting money for "services rendered." Selling footage of your "catch" prostitutes storm chasing, and brings us all more and more unnecessary attention.
Fourth, (for experienced forecasters and chasers) share your techniques and insight with those who are genuine in their desire to observe storms to learn, so they may chase with more safety and knowledge.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, set the example by practicing storm chase safety and courtesy. Your attitude in the field, especially at NWS offices and near storms, is how chasers are judged.
When the road is clogged with "yahoos" out imitating their favorite TV chase team or a character from the Twister movie, we chasers as a whole will have no one to blame but ourselves.
JAN 2004 UPDATE: Perhaps purveyors of thrill-a-second storm chase video finally are reaping the fruit of the seeds they have sown...and the taste for many is quite sour. The market for tripodded, good-quality tornado video has essentially saturated. Further, because more and more TV stations are sending out their own crews -- which is a hornet's nest of idiocy and danger itself -- they and their sister stations don't desire to buy much outside footage. Because so much storm video exists now, little can be created that truly is unique; and the pimping of storm chasing is no longer so easy or lucrative. Just the first few uplinks of any given major storm day, at most, will command a premium anymore, and only for one night as "breaking news." Because archives of tornado b-roll are now so common and diverse, even this evenings's breaking news has little potential for any shelf life after the next day, in the syndication market.
Commercially unique and highly prized storm video is so rare nowadays that one might as well buy a stack of lottery tickets instead, or else sell out to a death wish. In order to produce consistently marketable footage now, it must be so wild, so over-the-top, as to be patently dangerous. Shaky, screaming, home video by amateurs -- who often are willing to give (or sell at far under market rates) their footage to TV stations for 15 seconds of fame -- are at least as common as chaser video in the newsreels. Unfortunately, there still are a few who would call themselves legitimate storm chasers, yet drive straight into a tornado to risk upping the ante in the high stakes, life and death game of extreme-tabloid footage. This insanity has begun to catch the attention of more conscientious members of the mass media also, one of whom (in an Atlantic Monthly article) referred to such video as "torn porn." Yes, Wayne Curtis has hit the bulls-eye in that fine little article. That's exactly what it is -- torn porn.
Here is a modest proposal. If you insist on providing storm footage to TV stations, regardless of anything we suggest to the contrary and whether or not you are a storm chaser, just give it away. You won't get much for it anyway. The benefit is as follows: Enough people doing this, and almost all incentive to commercialize chase video will vanish. Video will again be shot for education, documentation, personal enjoyment and trading with other chasers; and as a result the hobby will lose much of its greed element. Anything left from chasing that is marketable would be aimed at either a harmless art market (still photography) or solely at other weather enthusiasts (i.e., tornado t-shirts and mugs), but not the carnage circuses of the tabloid media. This would be such a beautiful transformation to behold!
MAY 2011 EPILOGUE: A BLOG entry from Chuck Doswell, over 12 years after we wrote the above essay, indicates that
Some chasers film themselves either acting like they're rendering aid, or actually doing so. Either way, it's pretentious and egotistical. Authentic charity is not broadcast for others to see. It's what you do when nobody is watching that matters most.
Somehow, enough viewers eat up all this self-promotional pap that the cycle spreads and grows and propagates, the "Cancer Within" now metastasized beyond cure. This is where "storm chasing" now is. The "carnage circus" we described above is out of control. All manner of people with no understanding at all of severe storm behavior are out there shooting video and trying to cash in on the fad. The distinction between them and "storm chasers" doesn't exist to the viewer. For all practical purposes, everyone whose tornado video gets on TV is a "storm chaser". Denying that reality doesn't change it, any more than calling a duck a snake makes it a serpent.
To hell with it all. I (Roger) don't even call myself a "storm chaser" anymore. I'm ashamed of the term. I'm ashamed of (and deeply pity) those who go on TV and promote this unrecognizable wasteland of irresponsible lunacy that now defines "storm chasing". The term has been too corrupted and dirtied by rampant, shameless greed. You will see no "look at me" ego-strokers on my vehicle: no antennae, no weather-related stickers, no PVC tubes. Most of the time, you won't even know it's me out there. And I prefer it that way.
And still today, neither of us sells storm video, and we haven't since before 1993.