A Calculated Risk: One Storm Chase Group's Experience with the El Reno and OKC Tornadoes

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Sunday, 2 February 2014
Hall C3 (The Georgia World Congress Center )
Jennifer Henderson, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA

On May 31, 2013, three storm chasers lost their lives. The news of their deaths shook the storm chase community at its core as meteorologists, chasers, and members of the public began to speculate about what happened to Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and his colleague Carl Young. Amid the numerous blog posts and news items covering the devastation caused by the El Reno and Oklahoma City tornadoes, many began to ask questions about the nature of risk and the decision to chase: How could a scientist have been the first storm chaser killed while pursuing a tornado? What conditions might have caused them to lose their lives? What should be done about the number of chasers on the roads each spring? What level of risk is acceptable? And who should decide?

Estimates suggest that as many as 200 chasers crowded the roads on May 31. Based on several risk criteria, one group, a cohort of Virginia Tech undergrads studying meteorology, decided not to engage with storms firing close to urban centers. This Virginia Tech field studies course offers meteorology students a chance to put their forecasting skills to practice each spring as part of a two-week trip across the Great Plains. Students learn to assess meteorological data and make forecasting decisions about where to chase each day. I conducted participant observations and semi-structured interviews with the 12 undergraduate students and their four adult leaders. This poster offers an overview of the concept of risk through one storm chase group's experience on the road that day in May. It concludes by suggesting common ways that chasers conceptualize risk and offers ethical alternatives that might become the foundation of new policies that ought to govern the activity of storm chasing in the future.