>Tensions Grow Between Tornado Scientists and Storm Chasers

By Jeffrey R. Young
Boulder, Colo.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 17, 2010

A long line of storm chasers gets in the way of scientists studying severe weather. Photo: Carlye Calvin

There is a crowd under the funnel cloud.

Researchers wrapping up one of the largest-ever scientific field studies of tornadoes say that amateur storm chasers hindered their research and created dangerous traffic jams. Storm chasers, for their part, say that they have just as much right to observe storms as Ph.D.’s.

Hundreds of camera-toting amateurs in cars ended up chasing the same storms as a fleet of scientific vehicles during the high-profile research project, called Vortex2, which wrapped up data collection this week. At times the line of traffic caused the Midwestern roads to look like the freeways of Los Angeles, said Roger Wakimoto, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, during a briefing for reporters this week.

“I worry about this as a safety hazard,” Mr. Wakimoto said. “These people were blocking our escape routes because of the sheer number of cars.”

Researchers refer to their own fleet as an “armada,” and it was made up of about 40 vehicles, several of them carrying radar gear. The research goal is to understand how tornadoes form, to discover why some big storms generate deadly tornadoes and others don’t, and to improve forecasters’ ability to warn people of the severe weather events.

“It’s embarrassing to say, but we still do not understand what triggers tornado genesis,” Mr. Wakimoto said. “It’s got to be one of the most fundamental things we don’t understand today, but maybe we captured the data [during this study] to answer the question.”

At times amateur storm chasers kept the armada of science trucks from even getting to a budding tornado. One example was on May 19 in Oklahoma, when the number of storm chasers reached about 200 to 300 cars, according to Joshua Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research, in Boulder.

“The chasers basically made a rolling roadblock,” he said in a phone interview Thursday, while preparing to head out for his last day of data collection. He said that many of the amateur chasers were trying to roll along parallel to the storm to shoot video, but the researchers wanted to get ahead of the storm to set up their radar equipment. Mr. Wurman said that most of the chasers refused to move aside to let the research vehicles pass. While people have no legal obligation to yield to radar trucks, he said that he felt the amateurs should have given way as a courtesy.

“Just like you open the door for a guy with crutches—it’s not required by law, it’s just polite,” he said. “Nobody let us by, and I was really disappointed by that. It basically crippled our science mission that day.”

One veteran storm chaser pointed out on his blog, however, that some of the scientists involved in Vortex2 have been on major television programs that have led to an increase in amateur storm chasers. “Dr. Wurman’s research has benefited financially from his previous affiliation with the Discovery Channel program Storm Chasers—this program implicitly is encouraging viewers to engage in storm-chasing by glamorizing it,” wrote Chuck Doswell.”Dr. Wurman is a well-respected researcher, but he’s not Moses. Nor is he a first responder going about his duties—law enforcement officers are authorized to break laws in the performance of their jobs. I know of no researcher/storm chaser who has that particular blank check.”

Citizen Scientists?

Storm chasers argue that they offer a valuable service because some call in reports and observations to the National Weather Service.

“Storm chasers are out there to save lives—we’re out there to give warnings faster than the early warning systems,” said Aaron Estman, who has been chasing storms for a few years and runs a Web site called TexasChaser.com, in an interview.

But Mr. Wurman said that amateur storm chasers rarely offer useful information because, by the time they call in their reports, officials are already aware of the storms, thanks to radar equipment. And even the few storm chasers who equip their cars with scientific instruments do not properly calibrate their equipment to aid scientific literature, he said.

“They haven’t done the boring stuff—the tedious stuff of doing good science,” he said.

Some researchers say there is hope that storm chasers can become valuable citizen scientists, as has happened in other fields, such as astronomy.

“Right now there’s no coordination,” said Brian M. Argrow, a professor of aerospace engineering sciences and associate dean for education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “That’s an important thing that Vortex2 brings to the table—a coordinated effort.”
The Next Step

This is the final year of the two-year Vortex2 project, which cost about $13-million and is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and involves about 20 teams of scientists from universities and federal laboratories. The endeavor is a sequel to the original Vortex project, a similar effort in 1994 and 1995. (It became one of the inspirations for the Hollywood film “Twister,” which, like the television shows cited by bloggers, helped increase interest in storm-chasing.)

The scientists will now analyze the terabytes of data—the equivalent of thousands of filled hard drives from typical laptops—including images of the storms they observed. The first papers from the project are expected to be presented at a severe-weather conference in Boulder in October.