Why Chase Tornadoes? To Save Lives, Not To ‘Die Ourselves’

Friday's storm, which produced a mile-wide tornado, as it neared El Reno, Okla. Richard Rowe /Reuters /Landov

Friday’s storm, which produced a mile-wide tornado, as it neared El Reno, Okla. Richard Rowe /Reuters /Landov

The deaths Friday of veteran storm chaser Tim Samaras, his son Paul and their friend Carl Young when a tornado near El Reno, Okla., pummeled their vehicle has raised some questions:

— Why do storm chasers do what they do?

— Do the benefits outweigh the dangers?

Morning Edition has spoken with Josh Wurman, of the Colorado-based Center for Severe Weather Research. He was with a team in the El Reno area on Friday as well.

The people who choose to get close to deadly weather have “a wide variety of motivations,” Wurman says.

There are those who are in it for “the thrill seeking,” much like others who enjoy white water rafting or bungee jumping.

Others may hope to sell videos or photos.

There are those who both enjoy the chase and are fascinated by the science.

And there are those, like the researchers Wurman works with, who have specific missions and are there to study “how tornadoes form, why some tornadoes become strong and some don’t” and hope to collect data that will make the storms easier to predict.

That said, “there’s really no data set which is worth being injured for or dying for,” Wurman says. “Our goal is to help reduce injuries or reduce deaths, not to get injured or die ourselves.”

Wurman doesn’t know why his friend Samaras and the other two men got caught by the tornado on Friday. Wurman’s team had dropped data-collecting equipment in what they thought would be the path of the storm. Then, as they could see on mobile Doppler radar equipment, a second tornado was forming to the south of the main twister. That’s when they decided to move east and out of the area.

It’s possible, he says, that Samaras didn’t realize there was a second tornado in the area. Or, that his escape route was blocked by traffic or something else.

“The storm chasing community and the research community is still absorbing the loss of Tim Samaras, his son and his colleague,” Wurman says.

Wurman’s team and other groups, he’s sure, are evaluating their procedures “and whether or not what we’re doing is safe.”

But as for the reason why to do such work and whether it’s worth it, Wurman says simply that: “If we can make the forecasts better, then fewer people will die.”

More from the conversation with Wurman is scheduled to be on Tuesday’s Morning Edition. We’ll add the as-aired version of the interview to the top of this post after it airs. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Related stories:

— “Storm Chasers’ Deaths Raise Questions About Practice.” (USA Today)

— “Will Stars’ Death In Okla. Twister Change Storm Chasers Type Shows?” (Fox News)

— “Remembering Tim Samaras: Veteran Storm Chaser Killed In Okla. Tornado.” (ABC News’ Good Morning America)

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Why Chase Tornadoes? To Save Lives, Not To ‘Die Ourselves’