Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Storm Chaser Suffers Blistering Criticism For Driving Into Tornado

The view of stormchasers just before driving into
an oncoming tornado on this Louisiana highway
The tornado was luckily weak
Despite the deaths in recent years and the danger, some storm chasers are getting way too cocky in their bids to get the most dramatic tornado videos, for fun, viewer clicks and profits.

This has created a backlash, and one of the more blistering ones hit Bart Comstock, who drove his care into what was fortunately a relatively weak tornado near Lena, Lousiana a few days ago.

A little over a week , National Weather Service meteorologists issued alerts for the potential of particularly dangerous tornadoes in northern Louisiana. The forecasters worried some of the tornadoes that would form would be exceptionally strong and long lasting and deadly.

Needless to say, hordes of storm chasers converged on northern Louisiana.

One of them was Comstock and his crew.  They spotted what they judged (correctly, it turned out) to be a pretty weak, but still impressive tornado.

As the Washington Post Capital Weather Gang explained it:

"After spotting the tornado, video from Comstock and his crew shows the chase vehicle take off at a high speed straight for the twister - as its engine roars.

A second camera view from the same vehicle....shows the driver with one hand on the steering wheel, the other with a camera photographing the storm.

'We're in it, we're inside the tornado right now,' one of the crew says while another chaser is heard laughing in the background. 

The car is nearly blown off the road, while the chasers shout excitedly, "Whoa!"

After the encounter, one of the crew boasts, tweeting, "OMG, Just took a DIRECT HIT from a #tornado in Lena, LA. Got great footage, mult cameras.'"

Yeah, that sounds pretty reckless.

As a side note, you shouldn't be holding a camera with one hand a steering wheel with another even while driving in nice weather, never mind a tornado.

As the Washington Post notes, a lot of other chasers agreed with me.

These chasers and meteorologists took to Twitter right away to blast Comstock.

"You're doing it wrong...Takes direct hit and brags about having video," tweeted Victor Gensini a meteorology professor at the College of DuPage who leads student storm chasing tours.

"This is not a badge of honor, nor is it a good example. Bragging about it is tone deaf," said National Weather Service meteorologist who storm chases in her spare time.

"I try not to be judgmental.....but storm chasers driing INTO a tornado essentially laughing all the way. That's...not a good look," tweeted Houston meteorologist Matt Lanza.

Comstock argues that he is an experienced storm chaser and only takes calculated risks.

He had a direct message chat about it with Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist, who among many other things, writes for Forbes magazine.

Comstock said radar indicated that if there was a tornado near Interstate 49 in Lena, it wasn't strong and didn't show signs of getting stronger. They stayed south of the storm cell, which would have meant they had an escape route if things escalated.

The storm chasers figured the tornado would weaken, as its parent storm's energy was being damaged by another nearby storm. Thus, they decided to drive into it. Had it been a stronger storm, Comstock said, they would have stayed away.

"Our choice to get closer and then transect the tornado was not made as lightly as the video may make it appear," Comstock said.

What about less experienced storm chasers who see that video, see what they think is a weak tornado and drive into it? And then the tornado strengthens, or is worse than what appears from a distance? Doesn't that risk peoples' lives?

Comstock told Shepherd:

"Simply because I do something when chasing does not mean I condone nor do I want others to copy me. Especially those who may only have limited experience with storms and chasing. Driving into tornadoes is dangerous no matter how strong they are. I took a calculated risk but not one with 100% odds that I would come out unscathed."

Of course, people like me are perhaps culpable, too. After all, I do share these videos from time to time. And I'm putting Comstock's in this post, so you can see exactly what we're talking about.  But by doing so, am I encouraging risky behavior?

I'm not sure.

On the one hand, as Shepherd notes, you want to bring the awe and excitement of science into the mainstream. On the other hand, you don't want to put people in harm's way.

No matter what, it's always going to be a matter of walking a fine line in these matters.

Severe weather and tornado season is ramping up toward its peak in late April, May and June. There's going to be a lot of new tornado videos coming out in the next few months. How many risks will people take to get the "money shots" of these tornadoes? And will they be worth it?

I'll repeat. I'm not sure.

For what it's worth, here's the video of Comstock and his carload of chasers excitedly driving into the Lena, Louisiana tornado.  As you can see, the tornado wasn't too dramatic, as tornadoes go, but what if it surprised them?

You decide.

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