The El Reno tornado in Oklahoma claimed the lives of three noted tornado researchers-chasers. Their deaths have sparked debate over the dangers of pursuing tornadoes.
In 2010, I joined the pursuit of tornadoes as a reporter covering the VORTEX study of tornadoes. The two-year, $12 million research effort was the largest ever field study of tornadoes.
In researching the story, I learned very quickly how little we understand tornadoes and how important it is to gather data within the storm cells that spawn tornadoes.
Similar research in the 1990s helped make tornado warnings better, and that's the goal of ongoing research. Understanding the importance of the hook echo and the rear-flank downdraft of a storm all have come from improved technology and research.
The three professional researchers who died in the El Reno tornado were highly respected by the nation's top scientists for their level of expertise and the care they took to be safe.
One thing is certain, though, based on my observations during the VORTEX research and the comments of chasers that I respect: The amount of storm chaser traffic has itself become a danger, equal to the tornado itself.
So many amateur and commercial chasers are on the road that the lines of distracted drivers are a threat to safety — a danger that is compounded when people suddenly need to get out of harm's way.
We witnessed that during VORTEX, when a commercial storm chaser several times veered around and sped past our convoy of research vehicles on two-lane roads, threatening the safety of all.
During the storms that accompany tornadoes, flooding rains can occur, turning gravel or dirt rural roads into vehicle-trapping mud pits. Baseball-sized hail can fall, shattering windshields. Beat-up vehicles can break down, trapping the chasers in the open.
The sophisticated tornado-monitoring equipment can also break down, leaving the crew somewhat blind to what is happening around them.
Here are blog posts about Oklahoma by two people whom I respect:
World-Herald photographer Chris Machian: OWH photographer in the thick of Oklahoma tornadoes.
National Weather Service meteorologist Barbara Mayes: Storm Chasing: Faced with Tragedy, Will Chase On
Here is our 2010 story on the VORTEX expedition: Supercell sleuths
And this 2012 World-Herald story explains more of what storm researchers hope to understand: Probing deadliest minutes of a tornado