Storm chasing is not a game

Bear with me as I talk tornadoes. Again. I can’t help it. When you live most of your life in central Oklahoma, it’s vital to be interested in tornadoes. And apparently the interest doesn’t lessen when you move away.

By now you’ve heard there were 13 deaths in the Oklahoma City tornado on Friday (the count keeps rising), and three of them were experienced storm chasers. Almost unheard of. Chasers being caught and killed by a tornado.

We know now that the storm hit at the worst possible time — Friday rush hour, when the roads were gridlocked with traffic. We know the storm took several sharp, unexpected turns — abnormal behavior for such a storm. And we know part of the storm track ran right along I-40, where traffic was heaviest and slowest.

Still, what were the odds that experienced storm chasers would be caught?

Take a look at the dots on this map:


Those are storm chasers who were in the area at the time. It’s a wonder more of them weren’t killed. Especially since those aren’t all experienced, professional storm chasers whose jobs are to keep the public informed and safe. Some of them are just looking for dramatic photos and videos they can sell. Others are probably adrenalin junkies. And some might well have been those tour companies that take vanloads of tourists out to see and experience the thrill of real tornadoes up close.

But a real tornado is not a tourist attraction. It’s not a photo op. It’s not a movie prop or CGI. It’s not a sport.

A tornado is a violent, unpredictable storm. It can pack some of the highest wind speeds recorded on the planet. It destroys property. Sometimes lots of property. It kicks ass and takes names. Sometimes lots of names.

Three of the names this tornado took were Tim Samaras, 55; Samaras’s son Paul, 24; and Carl Young, 45. The two older men and their work were featured on the Discovery Channel series “Storm Chasers.” The three of them were among the most experienced storm chasers in the area that day, known among their colleagues for being particularly cautious. And it didn’t make a bit of difference.

This is the storm track that took everyone by surprise:

Image: NOAA
Aberrant storm track west of Oklahoma City on May 31 (Image: NOAA)

What can a tornado do to a storm chaser’s car?

This is what it did to Samaras’s car:

Image: CNN

This is what it did to the chase car from The Weather Channel:

tornadohuntIt’s time for the amateurs to leave the field. Time for them to stop putting themselves and others in harm’s way just for kicks or a few bucks. Time to reconsider who chases tornadoes and how they go about it.

Just ask Kevin Martin, senior meteorologist at He was a chaser. He quit chasing in 2010 after being caught in “traffic jams from chasers” during a tornado outbreak on May 10. He does not plan to return to the Great Plains.



Tim Samaras, Denver, Colo.
Paul Samaras, Denver, Colo.
Carl Young, Denver, Colo.


Note: El Reno, Yukon, and Union City are just west of Oklahoma City

5 thoughts on “Storm chasing is not a game

  1. I love the storms in tornado alley, and it must be said that hardly any of them produce tornadoes. But some of the do, and I have seen an F-5 up close and personal (Topeka, 1966) and do not want to do that again, and my sympathy to those who were injured and to the families of those killed in every tornado this year… and years and years ago.
    People who are not afraid of the power of these storms have done much good in understanding of these storms… and there is a price for that… as there often is a price for our passions and our bravery..
    However, the advancement in tornado science has saved many life in the last ten years… from a five-minute warning, it’s fifteen now. In another five years it might be twenty-five. That’s a lot of people who don’t have to die.
    These particular chasers did not die in vain… they gave their all in the service of science, and in the service of mankind.
    Yes, I admire them and their work, and I am very sorry that they got caught in the midst of this storm… they were brave men, doing something that they loved and that would benefit the people who live in the great plains.

    1. I’m sad too. Apparently they were some of the best in the business, scientists and researchers studying how tornadoes work in order to make us all safer. Too many chasers are out there playing their macho games with one another. The public needs facts from scientists on the ground and in the air observing the storm’s behavior, speed, and direction. These men were very good at what they did. But even the best aren’t good enough when the storm acts as erratically as this one did. Perhaps in the future chasers should stay farther away, in case the next storm also turns unexpectedly. Maybe with the radars we have now, they don’t need to be out running with the storm. We, they, have some thinking to do.

... and that's my two cents