TOPICS > World

Storms, Science and Risk: Challenges Facing Extreme Weather Researchers

June 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The death of three storm researchers in Oklahoma helps spotlight the risks involved in studying extreme weather. Ray Suarez talks with Howard Bluestein of the University of Oklahoma for more about chasing storms, dangers for both amateurs and professional scientists and some unexpected challenges (like traffic jams).
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we turn to Howard Bluestein, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. He’s done research in the field of active tornadoes.

And, Professor, let me begin by asking what a storm chaser is actually doing. Why do these people ride toward those ominous-looking funnels, when everybody else is trying to get away from them?

HOWARD BLUESTEIN, University of Oklahoma: Well, those of us who are looking from a scientific viewpoint want to get close so we can make measurements with our instrumentation.

Some of us use mobile Doppler radars. For these, we don’t need to get too close to the tornado, usually two, three, four, five miles. But the people who want to get very near tornadoes to make measurements of temperature and pressure have to get a little bit closer and leave their instruments in the paths of the tornadoes and hope that the tornadoes come over those instruments.

Tornadoes are so small, relatively speaking, that we need to get very close.

RAY SUAREZ: And there’s no other way to gather some of that intelligence besides putting yourself at some considerable personal risk?

HOWARD BLUESTEIN: Well, of course, with the radars, we try to stay a relatively safe distance from the tornado.

But we need the observations, especially to verify theories and to verify computer simulations.

RAY SUAREZ: For some of these people, Professor, is there also an element of thrill-seeking, an appetite for risk that goes along with seeking out these storms and heading right into the face of them?

HOWARD BLUESTEIN: Well, I think, for some of the storm chasers, the amateur storm chasers, not the scientific storm chasers, there’s the thrill of the chase.

People are out to get as close as they can, to get the most spectacular video and the most spectacular photographs. And that’s very dangerous.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you do the benefit/risk calculation? When you note that there are important things that need to be learned about these storms, about what’s going on inside them, how do you balance that against the very possible risk of injury and sometimes death?

HOWARD BLUESTEIN: Well, we know that there are problems in going out and chasing tornadoes, but most of us are — play it very safe. We try to keep a safe distance from the storm.

But if we can just use our remote instrumentation to make measurements so that someday we will be able to understand exactly what the structure of tornadoes is and to be able to forecast which storms will produce tornadoes and which won’t, ultimately, we will be able to save lives. So, in the long run, I think there’s a tremendous benefit.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been revealed that the twister that hit El Reno on Friday night was the widest ever measured at 2.6-miles-wide, a tremendous storm.

It took 18 lives, and some of the dead aren’t even identified. How do you safely approach a tornado like that? Are there best practices? Are there a set of guidelines for people who are in this game about what to do and what not to do?

HOWARD BLUESTEIN: I don’t think there’s really a formal set of guidelines.

We operated very safely out there on Friday, and we got east of the storm probably five to 10 miles, and turned our radar on and let the storm come to us. As soon as the storm got within maybe two or three miles, we then retreated and moved on down the road another five or 10 miles.

For the people who go and take pictures and videos, I wouldn’t recommend getting within two or three miles from the tornado. That’s — could be very dangerous. And also debris from the tornado can fall well outside the tornado.

RAY SUAREZ: Those people interest me particularly, because with the proliferation of cable television shows, with the open solicitation by local news channels of, you know, show us your own video of the storm, amateurs are encouraged — people who aren’t taking any scientific measurements at all, frankly, they’re encouraged to get out there and take the most jaw-dropping pictures.

Would you ask them — would you want them to stay at home or stay someplace safe instead?

HOWARD BLUESTEIN: Well, I would prefer that most of them stay away.

First of all, there is some benefit to having amateurs out there taking pictures. They send them to the National Weather Service, and the National Weather Service is made aware that there is a tornado out there. They may be in some locations that the scientists are not. And, for that, it’s very valuable.

But, right now, it’s gotten to the point in which there are too many people out there. We go out and try to make measurements with our radars, and sometimes we can’t find a parking space out in a very rural area. Sometimes, we get caught in traffic jams when we’re trying to get to another location, and it’s very difficult to because there are so many people out there.

Also, there are a few people out there, very few, fortunately, who drive not safely. And so I think the real risk right now is having too many people out there.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Bluestein from the University of Oklahoma, thanks for joining us.

HOWARD BLUESTEIN: Thank you.