If you have or have not been following the news, recent Oklahoma tornadoes have claimed the lives of dozens of people. Not just folks who did the right thing by seeking the strongest shelter possible, but also some pretty experienced storm chasers.
Tim Samaras was a veteran storm chaser with decades of experience. He was claimed by a tornado near El Reno, OK together with his photographer son Paul and his longtime chasing partner Carl. Seven other people died in this storm too.
Tony has posted some thoughtful comments regarding this tragedy, and I also felt like saying a few things...
First of all, Tim might well be the most experienced and capable storm chaser of them all, which is in only some ways makes it ironic that his life ended in this way. If anyone was going to know the ways to maximize safety in a treacherous exercise, it was he. My first gut reaction to this story was more 'what went wrong?' more than 'that yahoo should have known better'.
That being said, there is more to this in the overall world of storm chasing. Back in the 1980s, you simply could not get the kind of access to tornadoes in the way that we can now-- not without tremendously expensive equipment and even more prohibitive production processes. It's not like everyone could just zoom down the highway with a satellite dish on your roof-top and a battery powered VCR camera in your "free" hand. Nowadays it seems that each and every tornado that hits the ground has about 400 clips on Youtube or somesuch from every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a cell-phone camera. Even now you can search "El Reno Tornado 2013" and come up with "about" 135,000 (thousand) results. The consequence here is that the professionals are pushed even closer to the core of the tornado to get the kind of footage that folks pay for, which is/was their livelihood. Well, paying for this kind of video is also a fading industry because (a) media outlets that look for this can simply head to Youtube themselves if necessary, and (b) they don't want to necessarily encourage folks to try to get it in the first place. A more common example of a united media front against life-endangering yahoos would be when they refuse to air video shot from inside a storm surge warning area during landfalling hurricanes-- and that is the right thing to do.
Media outlets of course play a role in this as well, for you can find them standing in the middle of flood-waters and/or even traveling toward a tornado or being inside a hurricane, all the while exclaiming "stay inside" or "seek shelter immediately" or "do not stand/drive in flood-waters". There is something to be said for professionals in media attempting to bring a live experience to viewers when it comes to blizzards, hurricanes, and even tornadoes (the reality is that viewers crave such things like nothing else when it comes to TV news). Most of the time, this is done with the utmost safety in mind-- if you think back, this is one of the first times a professional storm chaser has ever been killed by the subject of their craft, much less having several people injured as well (thinking about Mike Bettes' three-car crew that also suffered a direct impact from the storm). You should think about giving these guys the benefit of the doubt when it comes this scenario-- more than likely something went wrong or a bad decision was knowingly made.
The account of this particular tornado was that it was 'rain-wrapped' which is an extremely dangerous situation (because you can't see the tornado). Most of the time you chase a storm from a side-rear angle so that (a) you aren't driving through a ridiculous damage train, and (b) you are conceivably not in the path of a tornado that most likely will not make a 180º turn. This becomes very difficult to plan out when you are dealing with a rain-wrapped storm. The other aspect involves your access routes and escape routes. There is virtual NO 'real' storm chasing in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states because the old-ness of the infrastructure precedes block-like city planning, not to mention the rugged terrain adding additional wrinkles. The grid pattern of streets and the vista-offering flat ground of the Central Plains adds an air of safety for those who understand their surroundings. Nevertheless, chasers can not have seen every road, and you never know in this situation if they simply found themselves on a poor street with a sudden drastic reduction in options when there's no time for error. I'm reminded of a scene from the 1995 movie Twister when they talk about "Bob's Road":
Tim Samaras was an accomplished published academic when it came to tornado research as well. Having been funded more than a dozen times through grants from National Geographic alone, it's easy to think that his fateful venture was for noble causes. However, it is my opinion that certain research avenues when it comes to tornadoes has either already been covered extensively, or is simply too unsafe to try with direct human contact.
Case in point: Doppler radar, pressure sensor measurements, and the like. It was an amazing thing when portable Doppler radar first measured closer-than-ever sensing of strong tornadoes. Check this out for example:
Now keep in mind, this was taken 25 kilometers from the tornado itself by a portable radar in aircraft-- in 1995. Just like the movie Twister, perhaps the only thing left from various research ventures is data from "more tornadoes" or even getting sensors inside the twisters (and staying alive to report back). My feeling is that if the only way we can do this is by physically driving them into the tornado, then we don't have the know-how yet to do it safely enough to be reasonable. This is not an exercise that requires this level of sacrifice. It's not worth it. Maybe a new iteration of man-made drones can take over this kind of thing and get us what we need.
But that unfortunately will not quell the public's deep-seeded thirst for adventure and wonder, even if it is from the comfy confines of the couch. Sometimes I wonder if a three-car crew from The Weather Channel was out looking to shoot a 30-minute TV program that they can tittilate with a side of educate (and make some money on commercials), rather than being specifically for 'research'. As everyone now knows, documenting a tornado is as simple as a driver with a cell-phone.
I personally have only one direct encounter with a tornado, which happen to be hitting our building as I was broadcasting. It also is on Youtube a bunch of places. Take a look at the quick right and left turns the storm makes across highways and bridges in the video-- you can not get close to such a thing.
This storm was an EF-3 with 165mph winds, similar to the Salyersville and West Liberty tornadoes of March 2012. However, in this video it was still ramping up to that level (EF-3 would have tossed the cars off the bridge and into the water!)
I think a good parallel to tornado chasing is the African safari. In both cases the desire is for the up-close-and-personal, but everyone knows that you want to do it as safely as possible. Sometimes I feel like the idea of researching the innards of a tornado is akin to trying to get a peek at how the jowls of the lion move to surround the human head as it strikes-- I suppose there's some interest in that (like there has for sharks), but it's not worth the human capital and much better left until we can do it safely, ie remotely.
Local emergency folks had their own similar direct encounter with the Salyersville Tornado. Magoffin County, KY in particular, as a recent Hometown Hero story I did described. Public safety professionals always get a pass in my book when they attempt the heroic to keep people safe. Even they will tell you though, that there is a time when rescues are simply not attemptable in extreme weather scenarios (for example, some flash flooding cases). But if they do so even still for the sake of others, don't fault them for it
Update - Here's another story that makes my point from the March 2nd, tornadoes (Thanks to Allen Bolling for the picture).
Tim Cooley, a Captain of the Floyd County Rescue Squad, along with 4 members of the squad was picked up by the tornado at the red light in Salyersville, KY. Within this truck, they were "turned around at least 3-4 times, tossed 200 yards, then landed". A power pole even went through part of the wind-shield. Miraculously, all survived the incident.
Update 2 - This particular storm (El Reno, OK) has now been upgraded to an EF-5 through perhaps a review of the obvious. There were numerous reports on portable Doppler Radars (recorded at the aforementioned safer distances) over near 300mph winds and a review of the site damage indicated a world's largest ever 2.6 mile wide path. As this news article describes, this is wider than the island of Manhattan. Revisions to the data happen all the time, and indeed a twister that wide would not have a text-book damage pattern like a much tighter spiral would indicate, but in this case it's not like it wasn't from a tornado-- we all saw it.