Future Tense

Why This Former Storm Chaser Now Thinks Stalking Tornadoes Is Unethical

The remains of a home that was destroyed by a tornado in late April in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As tornado season rolls on, a storm of another sort is brewing on social media this week. Have storm chasers gone too far?

In our always-connected world, extreme storm chasing is flourishing like never before. Nearly 20 years after Twister, an entire generation has grown up with the glamor of witnessing destructive weather firsthand.

Ninety-seven tornadoes have been reported in 10 states over the last four days, according to the Storm Prediction Center. The overall number of tornadoes is down this year compared with long-term averages, but they’ve come in quick bursts. Here’s some of the most notable from this week:

  • On Wednesday, an EF-2 tornado hit Wessington Springs, South Dakota, destroying two dozen homes. That tornado had a 20-minute warning time from the National Weather Service, about twice the national average.

It’s been more than a year since the first-ever storm chaser deaths, which occured last May in Oklahoma. After a collective pause for some inward reflection, most chasers have decided to press on cautiously, with an emphasis on safety and gathering scientific information. Others, though, are continuing down the slippery slope some have called ptornography—focusing on viral images and making a profit.

With so much devastation to photograph and so much fame for the few storm chasers that hit the big time, eventually something like this was bound to happen. From Gawker’s Dennis Mersereau (who’s a must-follow for weather nerds, by the way):

Just weeks after saying he wanted to see “some highly destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially,” a storm chaser’s picture of a dying 5-year-old tornado victim is spreading rapidly, and the chaser has had to defend himself for choosing to publish it.

The photo taken in the immediate aftermath of Monday’s Pilger, Nebraska, tornadoes has since been removed from the photographer’s Facebook page.* The photographer is a freelancer who previously worked at the Daily Nebraskan, a student newspaper at the University of Nebraska*, and he has pledged to do a fundraiser to pay for the funeral services of Calista Dixon, “the beautiful little girl who was in my very sad and tragic picture that has now been seen around the world.”

Social media and reality television have rocketed outlandish storm chasers like Reed Timmer to stardom. Timmer’s often parodied manner is so extreme, his ego even has its own Twitter account. Timmer also runs a storm chasing tour business that charges $3,500 for a seat on a 10-day van trip across the plains, seeking tornadoes. He was in Pilger this week:

Earlier this year, as tornadoes tore through Arkansas, a storm-chasing team calling themselves “Hail’s Angels” filmed themselves driving directly into a tornado, which they then immediately posted to Facebook, of course. Another chaser, in Mississippi, rode out an April tornado in a car, filming while its windows shattered around him.

What the heck is going on? Are we so desperate for attention that we need to play plinko with supercells? Here’s Oklahoma meteorologist Chuck Doswell, himself a storm chaser, writing this week on his personal blog:

Storm chasing is being flooded with a large infusion of folks out there chasing who are, as my friend Gene Moore says, mostly about themselves and not so much about the storms.  “Look at me!” they shout.  “I’m special because I chase storms [stupidly!].” They thumb their noses at the very notion of chasers being responsible to others.  They wallow in their uncaring “outlaw” status, joyful as a pig in a mud puddle when they get publicity for their “exploits”. 

First, a disclaimer: I’ve chased storms myself. I was paid to do so as a researcher at the University of Oklahoma, and I also did it during my free time when I lived there. It’s no doubt an enjoyable hobby for thousands of meteorologists and weather enthusiasts, but in my opinion, recent events force a rethink. There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking to witness the power and beauty of nature firsthand, but going out of your way to take photos of damaging storms and personal suffering with the intent to profit probably is.

A few reasons why:

1) Storm chasers are not saving lives. In fact, storm chasers sometimes put themselves at risk and further burden local emergency managers should they require assistance. Chasers call this phenomenon “chaser convergence,” and it sometimes crowds rural and remote roadways to the point that emergency vehicles can no longer pass.

2) Chasing with the intent to profit, through selling photos, video, or tour seats, adds to the perverse incentive for more and more risky behavior. Extreme storm chasers who celebrate destruction motivate others to follow in their footsteps. In some cases, people have died as a result. What’s more, the glee that chasers often express in viral videos is disrespectful to people who live there and may be adversely affected by the storm.

3) A recent nationwide upgrade to the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar network has probably rendered storm chasers obsolete anyway. The new technology, called “dual polarization,” can help meteorologists confirm that a tornado is indeed causing damage. NOAA calls the upgrade “as good if not better than a spotter report of a tornado.” In the early days of chasing, storm spotters were an essential part of real-time verification. Still, even without the recent radar upgrade, it takes only one or two reliable spotters on the ground (traditionally trained public service officers, like police) to confirm what weather radar is showing—not two dozen (or more) weather enthusiasts from out of town.

It’s not the appreciation of the natural world I have a problem with. It’s the ego-boosting flaunt of irresponsibility to try to make a buck. Chasers that can’t resist making money off their hobby should donate it all to the communities hit by the storms they’re profiting from.

*Correction, June 19, 2014: This blog post originally misstated that the photographer’s “Make it rain” comment had been deleted from Facebook. As of the evening of June 19, the comment was still on Facebook. The sentence has been removed from this blog post.

*Correction, June 20, 2014: This post originally said that the storm chaser who took a controversial photo is a photographer with the Daily Nebraskan. While he was previously with the Daily Nebraskan, he is currently a freelancer.