So, just to get it out in the open: yes, I am a storm chaser and I have been one for a considerable number of years. I have always been interested in natural hazards, an interest which was fueled in part by moving to different countries with different hazards due to my dad’s work. When my family was transferred to the U.S., I quickly joined SKYWARN and several other organizations. While volunteering as a storm spotter, I realized that I was actually pretty good at identifying the likelihood of a storm producing a tornado and when a storm had just reached the point where a tornado is just not going to happen. Most storm chasers today have all kinds of neat equipment. While I now have gadgets of my own, much of my earlier storm spotting and eventually storm chasing was based solely on forecasts and storm structure.
Part of the reason I became a spotter and chaser is that it allows me to help. Tornadoes themselves are not visible on radar. Yes, there are certain signatures that imply that a tornado may be possible but in order to confirm it, you need someone to call it in and provide the NWS with information. Storm spotters have been trained to identify tornadoes and other types of severe weather. However, storm spotters remain rather stationary (they do not intentionally travel to see storms) so the odds of them having seen a tornado are fairly small (although this depends on your location). A storm chaser may have more experience with tornadoes since they actively seek them out (although, once again this depends on the individual’s circumstances). Having experienced storm chasers (who are usually also spotters) can come in handy particularly in situations such as the one I experienced in Nebraska this past summer. If you believed the reports that were initially being sent to NWS, Nebraska was going through what would probably have been the greatest tornado outbreak the state has had. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), the things being reported to the NWS as ‘tornadoes’ were in fact gustnadoes. We did end up seeing one actual tornado on that day but the vast majority of the activity was not tornadic. Gustnadoes are pretty easy to mistake for tornadoes but there are other phenomenon that can result in incorrect reports of a tornado. These range from scud, smoke, and even a wall cloud.
Storm chasing has been portrayed as an extreme sport or even sometimes (as I like to call it) an exercise in stupidity in the media. It is not an extreme sport, and it is not something that people should do without knowing the basics of thunderstorm development, behavior and how to keep safe around these things. I understand why people are drawn to it and I am certainly in no position to fault them for it. However, there is a certain number of people who behave recklessly and put themselves and others in danger. I have been told by someone that they intended to find a tornado by either following a storm chaser (without their permission or knowledge) or by driving towards the “blackest cloud”. When I ask them how they would know if the person they were following actually knew what they were doing and was not doing the same exact thing, they could not answer. That’s a great recipe for disaster. For the record, I do not consider these people to be storm chasers as very few of this group actually know much about the storms, safety, and how to render aid if needed.
Rendering aid is something that I think every chaser hopes that they NEVER have to do since that means that someone got injured or worse by the tornado or by secondary hazards. I would love it if tornadoes only occurred in the middle of nowhere but the reality is that sometimes people are going to encounter them. A storm chaser may be the first on the scene and therefore (in my opinion) is obligated to help. Emergency vehicles may be assisting others or they may be slow to arrived due to debris-blocked roads. You may be the only shot someone has to survive or at least the only person who can provide them some comfort at that time. Tornadoes can result in a variety of injuries, so it is important to know first aid, CPR and to travel with a first aid kit.