The storm as a national park

Much has been written over the last week about different storm chaser types. Of course, there are as many reasons for storm chasing as there are storm chasers, so trying to categorize them is tricky business. Distinctions like “amateur” and “professional” – often cited by the media in their coverage – don’t make much sense and can vary daily. I wanted to offer up a metaphor that I find useful when I try to explain the myriad reasons for chasing to non-chasers.

Tourists watch Beehive Geyser erupt

Tourists watch Beehive Geyser erupt in Yellowstone National Park in August 2011. All of them had different reasons for being there.

If you’ve seen any of my public talks in the last few years, you might remember that I open by asking the audience whether they’ve ever been to Yellowstone National Park. (Usually, about two-thirds have.) I then ask, “What if Yellowstone National Park only existed for 4-6 hours, and was moving at 15-60 miles per hour the entire time you were there?” Any national park would work, but I use Yellowstone because it’s one of the most popular, and, at about 9,000 km2, it has roughly the same areal footprint as a supercell. If you want to see Old Faithful Geyser (or better yet, Beehive Geyser, right) erupt, you’d better be able to forecast where Yellowstone will materialize next, know where your target is within the park, and be able to get there quickly.

National parks are public, and open to all (as long as you pay the entrance fee!). Storm chasing occurs at the intersections of two inherently public things: weather and roadways. Therefore, anyone who holds a valid driver’s license is potentially a storm chaser. Some people go out with no intention of storm chasing, but are drawn into the hobby in the moment. To me, proposing to legislate or license storm chasing is about as nonsensical as restricting Yellowstone to only geographers and biologists.

Storm chasers admiring and documenting the 28 March 2007 South Brice, Texas tornado.

Storm chasers admiring and documenting the 28 March 2007 South Brice, Texas tornado.

People visit national parks for all kinds of reasons: to enjoy nature, for recreation, for photography, for scientific research, to seek thrills, or to spend quality time with their families and friends, to name just a few. Those same motivations apply to people who chase storms. My own motivations vary from day to day – some days I am out to collect scientific data (as with a radar truck), other days, I am out there just to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of a storm, test my forecasting skills with my friends, and maybe bring back images or video clips as a souvenir. I can’t claim that my motivations for storm chasing are entirely unselfish. After an encounter with a storm, I often feel invigorated. That motivates me to continue chasing even more than the promise of prestige or monetary compensation.

National parks can be dangerous. Yellowstone in particular has a diverse collection of hazards – scalding hot springs, bears, bison, steep cliffs, avalanches, rapids, etc. (Incidentally, the book Death in Yellowstone offers a fascinating, if morbid, glimpse at those who have perished within the park’s borders, and how they met their ends.) A thunderstorm, too, can imperil the lives of whose who venture within its domain, deserving or not. People can choose whether to educate themselves about the hazards they will encounter in an effort to minimize their risk. As we saw a week ago, however, Mother Nature always gets the last word, and any sense of control that we have over the situation is illusory. Even the most experienced take their lives into their own hands in an encounter with a storm, or a bear. (There’s a reason we call the area beneath the meso “the bear’s cage“!)

It’s not a perfect analog, but it goes a long way towards explaining to non-storm chasers the complexities inherent in trying to categorize storm chasers. Some are there for the storm, some are there for themselves, and others chase for a spectrum of reasons in between. The only thing we have in common is that we are there because the storm is there. Storm chasing is, was, and will continue to be, what we make it.