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Local Expert: Overhyped Weather Coverage Negatively Impacting Public

The earliest known tornado photograph taken in South Dakota in 1884. (Credit: NOAA)

The earliest known tornado photograph taken in South Dakota in 1884. (Credit: NOAA)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – A Chicago journalist and author who wrote the book on storm chasing is troubled that a pursuit that used to be solely be for science has turned into a ‘spectator sport’ and is worried that often-times overhyped weather coverage may be dulling the public’s senses when it comes to dangerous weather.

“There’s this weather apocalypse thing now where every storm is going to destroy the city,” says Lee Sandlin, author of Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers. “The weather coverage tends to be a little overdramatic so that every big storm is treated in terms of the end of civilization. That really devalues the notion of dangerous weather.”

Sandlin cites coverage of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado when a local TV meteorologist described the damage there as “the worst tornado damage-wise in the history of the world.” It wasn’t the worst, writes Sandlin in an op-ed article which ran in newspapers this weekend, including USA Today. Without minimizing the disaster or loss of life in Moore, he says there have been worse tornadoes, including the twister that hit there in 1999 that produced the strongest winds ever recorded on Earth.

Storm chasers with live video cameras helped broadcast the terror of the Moore tornado to millions around the globe. While they may have helped save lives in those hours of destruction, Sandlin says they may be having a more long-term negative impact.

“We’ve turned weather into this dramatic spectator sport,” says Sandlin. “Everyone has the cell phone or the video camera now and you see the storm and you see footage where people are really putting themselves in insane amounts of danger because they can’t look away. I understand the impulse. Tornadoes are fascinating to watch but you’ve got to learn to suppress that and look for your own survival.”

Storm Kings tells the story of the first storm chaser – Benjamin Franklin – and the observers and scientists who followed through the 40s and 50s and into modern times who helped unlock the mysteries of tornadoes and devised methods for predicting storms still in use today. Sandlin says some science is still being done but, overall, storm chasing has evolved into a cottage industry for thrill seekers. There are storm chasing tour companies and a video genre dedicated solely to tornadoes.

“If you have a couple of thousand dollars, you can pay some of the companies who will take you around tornado chasing. They don’t guarantee that you’ll see a tornado but they do guarantee you will see violent weather. People come from all over the world. You can go to YouTube and there’s a whole genre of videos. They’re actually called ‘torn-porn.”

And Sandlin says it’s often not the tornadoes creating danger for the storm chasers.

“The real danger from tornado chasing now is getting rear ended by another tornado chaser when you’re approaching a funnel. Instead of there being one spotter in the distance, there are dozens of chasers with their Doppler radar.”

Sandlin says people can improve their tornado survival by making some common sense decisions and should consider getting their weather information directly from the source.

“You have alternative sources now and you can get the direct feed from the National Weather Service. You don’t have to depend on the local news, you can check whether the weather service is issuing storm warnings and those are really much more practical and realistic. And if you know some elementary stuff, like how to take shelter and when to take shelter and not worrying about opening windows. And, don’t worry about lingering and taking video until the last possible instant. Take shelter a little earlier,” says Sandlin.

Storm Kings includes stories about legendary storm chasers and scientists like Ted Fujita, the Japanese researcher, who conducted field studies of twisters at the University of Chicago. Fujita, who became known as “Mr. Tornado,” invented the scale for measuring the destructive power of storms and did it without ever actually seeing a tornado.

‘He had an extraordinary intuitive sense of how storms behaved. He was amazing with his insights into the nature of storms and he did all of that completely in his head from photos and from eyewitness accounts. His scale the F-1 through F-5? The F is for Fujita”

It may be hard to believe but Sandlin says the history of weather in the U-S includes a long period when the public heard very little about tornadoes.

“Tornado prediction was a very crude science and people believed that predicting tornadoes could cause panic. The weather service was also being pressured by business interests and real estate people in the Midwest who did not want the idea spread that tornadoes were real problem. So for several decades the weather service banned forecasters from the using the word tornado.”

Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers book cover. (Credit: Pantheon Publishing)

Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers book cover. (Credit: Pantheon Publishing)

Those actions and the lack of official government research only helped to reinforce dangerous myths about tornadoes.

“When I was a kid, everything they everything they told us in school about tornadoes was wrong. They told us to hide in the southwest corner of the basement. They told us to open windows when tornadoes approached because there was a vacuum at the center of the funnel and the air pressure inside the building would push outward and cause your house to explode. They also told us tornadoes couldn’t cross rivers or go up and down hills.”

Another myth is that tornadoes don’t hit big cities like Chicago.

“In Oklahoma City they will tell you differently. In St. Louis they’ll tell you differently. For some reason that no one can explain there has not been a tornado in the city core of Chicago but there is no theoretical reason that anybody knows why there can’t be. And it just may be something that hasn’t happened. As people say, nothing is historical until it happens.”

Despite decades of scientific research and observations, Sandlin says experts still haven’t found the holy grail of tornado forecasting.

“In terms of predicting in an hour a tornado is going to form in a particular storm cloud, we’re really still nowhere. It may not be a solvable problem. It just may not be possible to have enough information in real time to do it. On the other hand, tomorrow morning we could be talking about how the National Severe Storms Laboratory announced – Oh we figured it out.”

“Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers” is published by Pantheon. For more information, visit www.leeandlin.com