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Science and the public benefit from storm chasers

In Education, Local News, Media, National News, Opinion, Science, Technology, Uncategorized on June 3, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Deer In Headlines

By Gery L. Deer

WHIO-TV's weather radar as it appeared on April 3, 1974 approximately 4:20PM as the Xenia Tornado touched down. Notice the "hook" echo indicating the twister.

WHIO-TV’s weather radar as it appeared on April 3, 1974 approximately 4:20PM as the Xenia Tornado touched down. Notice the “hook” echo indicating the twister.

In the 48 hour period between April 3rd and 4th, 1974, the Midwestern United States experienced one of the most devastating tornado outbreaks in history. Known as a “super outbreak,” 148 confirmed tornadoes touched down from Michigan to Alabama and Illinois to West Virginia, with 30 of them in the F4-F5 categories and resulting in the deaths of 300.

One of the most devastated towns was Xenia, Ohio, where a massive F5 funnel tore through the city leaving a mile-wide path of destruction, killing 33 and injuring more than 1,100. The low death toll is attributed to advanced warning provided by WHIO-TV weatherman, Gil Whitney using the first local weather radar system in the Dayton area.

Satellite, GPS and advanced warning networks, along with modern Doppler radar have all helped increase early warnings for tornado victims from less than 3 minutes to more than 15 minutes. Much advancement in severe weather detection might never have happened, however, without the work of the brave men and women who call themselves, storm chasers.

Storm chasers are serious scientists working to increase our knowledge of tornadoes and how they behave. Unlike those depicted in the 1996 movie, “Twister,” however, chasers experience little glory instead spending days and weeks in preparation that may result only in a few moments of tornado spotting.

As you might expect, purposely trying to outmaneuver the proverbial “finger of God” carries with it some inherent danger. Unfortunately, that danger can turn deadly at any moment.

On May 31st, revered storm chaser Tim Samaras, 55; his son, Paul, 24; and meteorologist Carl Young, 45, were killed near El Reno, Oklahoma as they tried to document one of several tornadoes moving through the area. Since their deaths, many have asked, “Is the data gathered from storm chasing worth the risk?” In my opinion, yes, it is.

I’ve always been fascinated by tornadoes. The day after the Xenia tornado of ’74, my parents took me along as they assisted with the cleanup efforts by using our grain trucks to help haul away debris. I never forgot what I saw there. Nor will I ever forget the darkened, green sky and the strange, coldness of the air as the monster storm was passing through. It marked my psyche for years to come.

Possibly the most famous photo of the Xenia Ohio 1974 Tornado. Taken from Greene Memorial Hospital by Fred Stewart.

Possibly the most famous photo of the Xenia Ohio 1974 Tornado. Taken from Greene Memorial Hospital by Fred Stewart.

The experience left me nearly terrified of storms, until one day in 1988, when I was alone at our family farm and stepped outside after hearing tree branches break during a storm. I stood on our front porch, paralyzed, as I watched a small funnel cloud worm its way across the pasture in front of me, parallel to our house.

My ears popped as I stood motionless, surrounded by completely still air except for the slim tube descending from the sky into a swirling mass of dust. With almost no sound at all, it smashed the wooden sideboards of one of our old trucks, crossed the field about a half mile away and totally demolished a neighbor’s barn.

As quickly as it came, it was gone. That day, my fear gave way to a new respect for one of nature’s most dangerous, ephemeral phenomena. Since then, I’ve been within eye-shot of two more tornadoes and educated myself about them as best I could without taking to the road as a chaser.

But, I have the utmost respect – not to mention appreciation – for those who have. While there are probably some storm chasers who are just thrill-seekers, I have no doubt that most are in it for the science and the potential benefit that comes from the effort.

Early warning systems now broadcast through TV, Internet and cell phones, and most air raid sirens have been re-purposed for use as tornado warning systems. Everyone in and around Tornado Alley should remain diligent when severe weather approaches and heed warnings when they are issued.

It’s doubtful we’ll ever be able to fully predict when and where a tornado will strike but, thanks to the work done by storm chasers, scientists can give people a fighting chance to be better prepared.


Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer based in Jamestown, Ohio. More at http://www.gerydeer.com.

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