THE AMAZING CHASE

My worst fear as a storm chaser seems perilously close to being realised; that the pursuit will become so popular that traffic jams caused by chasers will result in deaths.

There is a possibility that this has already occurred.

El Reno is a small town just west of Oklahoma City in the USA which is a hotbed for tornadoes. On May 31 this year the area produced the widest tornado ever recorded - an incredible 4.2 km wide packing winds in excess of 475 km/h. Its size and unusually circular path caught chasers off guard, killing veteran weather researcher Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and research partner Carl Young - familiar faces if you've seen Storm Chasers on Discovery. Another amateur chaser was also killed.

The surprising elements of the tornado itself were clearly the main factors in this worst case scenario but it cannot be ignored that an ever-increasing number of amateur chasers are adding to congestion on the roads and putting the lives of real researchers at risk.

May 31 storm chaser tracker animation

There are endless accounts from chasers expressing frustration at sitting in bumper to bumper traffic as a storm bears down on them. There's a cute irony in the fact that the ones complaining about the problem are the ones causing it.

It was a good thing to see the seriousness of Samaras and Young's work highlighted on the Storm Chasers TV show. However, the program also featured other teams with a much more brazen desire for extreme weather footage. Tim and Carl were conducting genuine scientific research, Sean Casey was making an IMAX feature film, and Reed Timmer lay somewhere in the middle. The show was hugely popular and there is little doubt that the glorification of extreme chasing has played a part in getting more people on the road. Storm Chasers was axed after its 2011 season.

In this YouTube era where everyone has a camera, there is also strong competition for the most extreme footage, some of which TV stations will pay good money for. However, amateurs have much less chance of finding that fine line between getting extreme footage and getting themselves into real danger or worse.

Many storm chasers in the US provide useful real time weather data which assists the National Weather Service in providing timely warnings, which ultimately save lives. But there is little value in trading one life for another. President of the Kansas Emergency Management Association, Brian Stone called for regulations to be placed on storm chasing but admitted they would be difficult to implement.

Senior Vice President of AccuWeather, Mike Smith, made the point that this is the first time in 40 years of the practise that chasers have been killed, so we should not overreact. But 40 years ago there were likely very few storm chasers on the road so the number has slowly increased. As the numbers continue to rise, the risk of death or serious injury rises also.

Thankfully, we don't have the same problem in our own country. Firstly on average, Australia's weather isn't as extreme as North America's and secondly, while the number of local chasers is rising, it is nowhere near the numbers in the US.

Perhaps in this regard, our lack of extreme weather is a blessing.