"This [storm chasing] is one of the last frontiers for meteorology and mankind on earth. No armament or other device can protect the field meteorologist in search of tornadoes. Not just bravado, these studies are shown to produce valuable findings with an air of excitement unsurpassed in the pursuit of science."
The above quote by Dr. Richard Carbone succinctly describes why I feel proud and fortunate to have participated in storm chasing for the past 20 years. What I have learned from storm chasing (and from fellow storm chasers) has been invaluable to me. Storm chasing has enhanced my career and given me great personal satisfaction. No doubt, storm chasing is evermore popular today because of its very mixture of science, adventure, and frontier bravado. It is when the ingredients within this mixture are thrown out of proportion that ethics problems arise. A number of chasers with whom I have talked to agree with me.
Let me emphasize that the scientific, often life-saving information that emerges from storm chasing far overshadows the negative side. For example, in addition to his astute meteorological observations and his published papers, Erik Rasmussen has obtained a wealth of knowledge and even improved the science of photogrammetry through lugging movie cameras around on storm chases. Dan Purcell has used dual interests in storm chasing and video/movie production to become a highly sought producer of weather and storm-related videos. Lou Wicker has put his storm chase "savvy" to great use in three-dimensional numerical thunderstorm modelling. Harold Brooks has done likewise, in addition to interacting with operational meteorologists and storm spotters in both the U.S. and Canada to help make them understand severe storms. Tim Marshall has combined storm chase and engineering knowledge to make specific recommendations about improving the safety of engineered structures in windstorms and tornadoes. Tim, Dave Hoadley, and others have contributed still and movie/video photography for national storm spotter training materials - the materials developed by government employees who are storm chasers. And the list goes on and on.
In contrast, consider the following scenarios: Caravans of storm chasers with no experience, taking unnecessary risks, blocking traffic, driving dangerously, creating a general nuisance for law enforcement (getting on the radio saying, "Aunty Em, Aunty Em, it's a twista, its a twista!"), chasers becoming so excited that they make erroneous reports to NWS (National Weather Service) offices and the news media. Picture also dozens of chasers crowding NWS offices getting in the way of people who are trying to work, chasers screaming in ecstasy as a tornado churns through a mobile home park, and those persons that wish only to get the best and closest video to achieve bragging rights. After discussion with several of my colleagues, it appears to me that we can instill ethical behavior into storm chase efforts when we chase with SAFETY, COURTESY, and worthy OBJECTIVES in mind.
"Safe" chasing involves being well prepared (including all that is necessary to make a safe trip), having an escape route, not taking unnecessary chances, and driving carefully. These chasers pull off main roads (off the shoulder if the terrain allows, or parking in a lot or apron), and set up their cameras away from the road. Safe chasers strive to learn all they can about storms before they begin chasing. They try to avoid core-punching, as if such acts could win a badge of courage. Public safety is always a critical concern to safe chasers. They steer from dangerous storm situations when possible.
It has been said that storm chasers are not storm spotters. This of course, is true. In many situations, the NWS/news media warnings let chasers know that spotters have the situation well in hand if they are monitoring radio and news reports. Experienced chasers know that telephone calls occasionally are difficult to make. Several chasers have circumvented this problem by obtaining Amateur Radio licenses. Not only does this make reporting easier (especially near large communities where Amateur radio nets are most common, and the chances for a major disaster are greatest), it also allows a chaser to receive relevant meteorological information quickly via the two-way radio.
Of course, a serious storm chaser may have objectives which differ from a storm spotter. Reporting severe weather may be a secondary priority to gathering scientific data or working as a free-lance photographer, etc. Still, when chasers coordinate with local NWS offices, they likely will find the meteorologist in charge (MIC) willing to exchange information which is of mutual benefit (briefings and/or maps in exchange for real time and/or post-chase reports and/or film copies).
Courtesy is linked to safety in that they are both members of the "golden rule" club. When thinking of courtesy, David Hoadley comes to mind. NWS employees in the Midwest who know Dave refer to how considerate he is when seeking information and data, how he supplies them with reports, and how he sends them photographs of tornadoes and storms he has observed.
There are scores of other chasers who are courteous, in that they respect the concerns of others. Courtesy obviously includes many aspects of chasing, from understanding when NWS meteorologists are in a "crunch" time and unavailable to brief chasers, to respecting the rights of storm victims. Indeed, it is best for chasers (particularly those prone to being in a euphoric state) to stay away from disaster areas.
Most chasers have spent a considerable amount of time learning how to analyze maps and make their own forecasts. This relieves others of the burden of having to brief chasers when NWS forecasters have a heavy work load. I personally do not believe a person is a serious storm chaser unless he/she is willing to learn about forecasting. It's like wanting to become a wildlife photographer without learning the living habits of animals. The photographer must understand an animal's traits in order to achieve photographic success and to insure that the animal is not disturbed or harmed. In other words, knowledge is necessary if the photographer is to succeed.
There are situations where large groups of storm chasers will congregate at one NWS office. The courteous approach is to send representatives into the office to politely offer exchange of reports for a look at the data. (If a hard copy of the data can be printed off AFOS, then many others can use this.)
Safety and courtesy should be viewed as critical chase concerns. Beyond these concerns, chasers should set storm chase objectives. I think it is appropriate to ask after a chase: "What have you learned?" rather than "How many tornadoes did you see?" Learning involves making careful observations of the events occurring all around you. Whether one wants to learn about forecasting, storm structure, tornado dynamics, hail, lightning, microbursts or any other subject, the learning potential is unlimited.
There are other worthwhile objectives, which may be more personal, such as obtaining "sellable" photography. Indeed, chasers occasionally take such dramatic videos or slides that the costs of an entire chase year are covered by their sales. Storm chasing has entered the realm of free enterprise. Such marketable goods should not be obtained at the cost of safety and courtesy.
There is so much satisfaction to gain when a storm chaser properly mixes the quests for scientific knowledge and public welfare with the adventure, excitement, and pioneering spirit which naturally arises from storm chasing. To me this satisfaction, when combined with the pure pleasure derived from watching the natural world, is what makes storm chasing such a wonderfully unique experience.