Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Is technology chasing's savior or ruination?

Since I am just 3 months from officially gaining OF status (July 13 is when I hit the dreaded five-o), I can feel qualified in making a few observations regarding the evolution of chasing over the 15 year period that I have been involved in this endeavor. Of course I cannot even come close to the experience of chase pioneers such as Gene Moore, Al Moller, Chuck Doswell and Dave Hoadley (among others), but I can say that in 1989 chasing was a vastly different animal than it is today- and it will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. Why this nearly exponential change? Of course, the answer is technology (I include the popular media and its evolution in that umbrella).

When I first started chasing, getting data was an interesting challenge, to say the least. The main source was the local NWS office, and also fax charts that we got with a portable fax machine that we brought along. So we dialed up a few NGM, upper air and surface maps, along with the SPC outlooks. Then after we got into the target area we visited the local NWS office (if they would let us in, not all would) and asked politely if we could see the latest surface map. After analyzing that, we took off for wherever, and from that point it was completely visual, except for reports we might hear on local radio or the NOAA WX radio. Since we were brand new at the chasing game, we knew nothing about storm structure, so if we stumbled onto a good storm, it was often complete luck.

After a couple of years of bumbling across the Plains in the above fashion, I got my first laptop and cell phone. This changed things a lot- since we had access to more data in the motel room, and could sometimes get an update from a friend while on the road. We still did go to NWS offices, though, but it was not as crucial as before.

At the same time all of these changes were going on, chasing as a hobby in general was undergoing quite a revolution- mainly in tandem with the explosion of cable TV and 24 hour news/infotainment, which over-publicizes and glamorizes the hobby, and of course the premiere of the movie Twister in 1996. Those two things really changed the public perception of chasing, and led to the explosion in the number of people going out on their own- from folks that chase every year for several weeks, to the local "yahoos" who crowd the roads whenever there is a tornado warning.

Now of course, the technological aspect of the hobby has really taken off. Chasers can get high-speed internet in their vehicles, along with live radar and GPS. This capability will only get more widespread in the very near future- I just read about Wi-Max, which is like Wi-Fi, but can stretch over miles, not feet. Within the next few years, all chasers will have the capability to have every shred of information they need beamed directly into their vehicle no matter where they are, even in the most remote locations.

So is all of this evolution a good or bad thing? Well, like most things in life, there is no simple answer to that question. I have generally been an embracer of the latest technology, but maybe not to the extent that some are (my vehicle will never look like the Carson Eadsmobile). This year I considered getting the Baron XM WXWorx radar that is all the rage, but financial considerations prevented me from doing that yet. I will be chasing with a GSM cell phone connected to my laptop, which provides internet access in many parts of chase alley.
Personally, as far as chase "success" goes, there is no doubt that the new gadgets and gizmos have helped me see more and better storms than in in the old days. But is the overall experience diminished? Well, yes and no. I do lament, like many others, the loss of the experience of viewing a storm by yourself- quite often nowadays there is not even a place to pull off to the side of the road, due to the number of chasers on a particular storm. I will never forget one time in the Texas panhandle when we were approaching a supercell from the east, driving through the canyons of the Caprock- when we emerged up onto the plain we were greeted by a massive "chaser convergence" of at least 30 vehicles- we barely could find a small space to set up our cameras.
And this will only get worse- with all the new technology, even inexperienced chasers with no knowledge of meteorology or storm structure will be able to get the latest SPC tornado probabilities, and when they get to the area, then they will have all the tornado warnings and radar images displayed right in their car. Of course this does not guarantee success, as I still see many chasers out of their cars pointing at an outflow boundary like it is about to produce an F5. So experienced and knowledgeable chasers who can interpret the data properly and visually judge storm structure and morphology will still have the edge. Overall, though, there will continue to be more and more people out every year- lured by the siren song of the latest and greatest chase toys. So through simple dumb luck and sheer force of numbers the good storms will continue to have more and more people on them.

On the positive side, the new technology has really made the chase process a lot easier and sometimes less stressful- and at this point, for me at least, there is no turning back, as I personally cannot do anything about the problems I outlined above. So I will embrace the new chasing realities and take what comes- the good, the bad and the ugly. The storms themselves are still the most awesome and powerful force in nature- and I never get tired of viewing them. That is the bottom line, and it is why I will always chase.

Matt

3 comments:

storm300 said...

Matt, you seem to hit it all pretty well. I absolutely agree with most everything you mention. The crowds will continue to grow... but the crowds (or at least the large percentage of crowds), are after one thing. The tornado. The good thing about many chase days is the fact that there are more than one target area for supercell thunderstorms. I stress that, because that is obviously what you and I are after... not necessarily the tornado. I'm only 25 years old and I can safely say that I've seen enough tornadoes to hold me over for awhile. This is why I developed my love for photography. Photographing supercell thunderstorms (instead of vidoegraphing tornadoes), is now becoming my main source of self satisfaction from the chase. There is only a small percentage of very high quality supercell thunderstorm photography out there, but there is an oversaturation of tornado videography... Tornado video is a dime-a-dozen nowadays. And to me, being on a tornado that every other chaser in the "Chase Alley" is on, well, there's no satisfaction or enjoyment to me. I don't feel like I am "one with the storm". It doesn't feel special.

With the fast growing number of chasers and the technology to get to storms, it is now as important as ever to try to discover the "secondary targets" where real meteorology goes to work to try and find the great storms that aren't so obvious to the general chaser.

On moderate risk days in Oklahoma, with a slight in Colorado, you know where I will be.

Mike

Dan said...

Matt,

Great to chase with you. Learned a lot. Great pix.

Dan Moore

Dan said...

Matt,

Great to chase with you. Learned a lot. Great pix.

Dan Moore