Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Researcher, storm chaser or thrill seeker?

            Tim Samaras (who died last week) getting up close and personal with a tornado

     Last week, storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young were killed on the job chasing an EF-5 tornado in Oklahoma.

    It is evident from the media coverage that these men, and especially Tim, were much loved and well respected in their fields. And it appears that the tornado may have taken a sudden turn to the north, rendering the men unable to escape. It is a tragedy, clearly -- as is, of course, the billions of dollars in property damage and civilian lives lost throughout tornado alley in the past weeks.

  Inevitably, since their deaths there has been much speculation and discussion as to what, exactly, we should call these guys.  Storm chasers? Thrill seekers? Or researchers?

 The day after the tragedy, The Weather Channel insisted on calling Tim Samaras a "scientist" or a "researcher." They never used the term "storm chaser."  They insist that his entire purpose -- his main goal -- was to study tornados and to save lives. Epitaph after epitaph has insisted that Tim continued to risk his life day after day, year after year, in the service of others.

  On the other end of the spectrum, a perusal of online blogs shows that many feel these guys (unfairly, I think, lumping them in with all "amateur" storm chasers) were nothing but thrill seekers who knew the risks they were taking, and whose eventual deaths -- if not deserved -- were certainly not a surprise.

 This is a good time to state the obvious: I'm obsessed with tornados, hurricanes and all types of wild weather.  I love shows like "Storm Chaser" and watch them whenever I can.

 Tornados, and extreme weather in general have it all: beauty, power, tragedy, drama...and if you look close enough, you might even see God.

                        Tim and a fellow storm chaser experience the majesty of a supercell --
                       and the thrill of being so close to such a dangerous force of nature.

  So I get why storm chasers do their thing. Tim Samaras started out as an amateur storm chaser 20 years ago. He evolved into a photographer, scientist, meteorologist, and yes -- TV star -- through his years storm chasing.

               The 1996 movie "Twister" showed the frat-house like environment of storm chasing. They were also researchers...who got their rocks off chasing storms.

  It's clear that storm chasing is as dramatic, electrifying, heart-pumping and even death defying as base jumping, sky diving or any other extreme sport.

  And it's got the hit-and-miss quality of a good Vegas game of craps. They put all their money on the table, point the van in the direction of the highest probability of tornados, take a big swig of Red Bull, crank the Creedence Clearwater Revival, floor it to 90 and let it ride... 

 But it's more than that. It's the silence of the thick, humid air as the immensity of the supercell forms over the prairie. It's the power. And the inexplicable beauty.

                    The terrible beauty of a spectacular supercell rises over the heartland

You're simply not human if a teensy-weensy part of you does not want to be there and see it with your own eyes -- to share the same space of the planet with such majesty and unspeakably dangerous drama.

   So to say that these guys were not in it for the thrill of the chase rings hollow to me. It's like guys who say they read Playboy for the articles. Pleh. Puh-lease! 

   One of the problems with modern society is our increasing inability to see things in any colors other than black or white.  Are the terms storm chaser, thrill seeker and researcher really contradictions in terms?

Why can't these guys have loved the chase, and been drawn back again and again to the majesty, danger, mystery and beauty of these incredible storms? Why is that something to be ashamed of?

 Yes, they did research, they helped pinpoint the location and the direction of storms, and saved lives.

But in the end, they did it for love.

 And there's nothing wrong with that.

                                         "My passion for storm chasing has always
                                           been driven by the beautiful and powerful
                                      storms displayed in the heartland each spring."

                                                                             -- Tim Samaras

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