For some time, I’ve looked at amateur storm chasers with some disdain. I believed that too many were putting themselves into too much danger, just to see, photograph and/or video record tornados. I doubted that many chasers were truly motivated by improving public safety and even fewer were doing real science, no matter what they said. I was concerned that many chasers set poor examples for the general public and that their “antics” encouraged lesser informed people to take uneducated and unwise risks.
I’ve been a SKYWARN storm spotter for more than a quarter century. When talking to friends, family members and even journalists about my volunteer service to the National Weather Service (NWS), I was careful to make sure they understood that I’m not a chaser, like the people they’ve seen on TV or on the Web. My ultimate goal, I’d explain, isn’t to see tornadoes, it’s to help protect my community from possible storms by staying close to home and relaying valuable information to the NWS.
So it was with some trepidation that I attended an event in November, 2015 called INChaserCon, a one-day convention in the Indianapolis area for storm chasers. I’m glad I went. Some of the people I met there subsequently changed my thinking. They are admittedly driven by a desire to see tornadoes. But my subsequent experience with them demonstrated that they’re also very passionate about getting reports to the NWS.
After the chasers learned that I have access to NWSChat – a private, internet-based text chatroom run by the NWS – they invited me to join them on Zello, a smartphone app with which they communicate with each other—so I could relay their reports to the NWS via NWSChat.
That’s exactly what happened during the August, 2016 tornado outbreak in Indiana and Ohio. As a tornadic storm moved east from Kokomo into the county warning area of my local NWS office, storm chasers John Tinney, Eric Lawson and David Buell reported wall clouds, funnel clouds, etc. via Zello. I relayed those reports via NWSChat.
Then, a storm over my own home in Fort Wayne, Indiana received a tornado warning. Storm chaser Michael Enfield immediately headed toward that storm. Via Zello, he promptly reported a wall cloud, then funnel clouds and then a tornado for me to relay via NWSChat. The NWS survey report recorded the time of the tornado’s initial touchdown as 5:27 p.m. – the same time as Enfield’s report, confirming that he saw and reported the tornado when it first touched down. That storm eventually did EF-3 damage to a rural part of Allen County, Indiana.
Throughout the event, any time the chasers had something to report, if I wasn’t immediately available on Zello, they’d keep trying until I acknowledged their reports. Getting reports through to the NWS was clearly very important to them. By the end of the event, I had typed 50 reports into NWSchat. All but about 15 of those came from storm chasers on Zello. The rest came from storm spotters via ham radio.
By aggressively chasing storms, my new friends put themselves in positions to immediately report weather that was not near any traditional SKYWARN spotters at the time. By religiously reporting, they played significant roles in protecting people in the paths of the storms.
A Facebook post by Lawson sums up pretty well how this particular group of storm chasers sees things:
“I noticed a developing supercell heading towards Kokomo was looking really strong and rushed out the door. By the time I was on interstate 69 southbound the strong EF3 was already in progress and heading towards the town in which I have spent many days of my youth, and is home to many great friends and their families. Hearing reports of the devastation in progress on the radio made my heart sink. I was rushing south in horror wondering if anyone I knew had been hurt. This is the moment that things really changed for me, I felt less excited about seeing tornadoes, and much more concerned with providing accurate information to keep people informed.”
I have no doubt there are other storm chasers out there who rarely report their observations to the NWS. There are likely some that don’t care about anything but the excitement of seeing a tornado.
But I’m convinced that the storm chasers I know are not among these. They’ve changed my attitude about chasers.