The newest extreme sport: covering the weather for TV. In an effort to satisfy the public's appetite for footage of blizzards, hurricanes and, most recently, the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma, reporters as well as professional and amateur chasers are heading straight into the eyes of the storms.
After Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young, the stars of Discovery's Storm Chasers series, died while filming the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado on May 31, some in the industry are wondering if the competition to get the scariest shot has gone too far. Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes thinks so. While following the same twister, his car was lifted off the ground and dumped 325 feet away. "This is a wake-up call about the safety of people chasing weather," says Bettes, who suffered cuts from broken glass (his cameraman cracked a vertebrae in his neck).
"The weather community should operate under a standard set of guidelines," he says. "I think the Weather Channel would recommend that we don't chase on those rare days deemed a PDS [particularly dangerous situation]. It's great to get the pictures, but if it's too dangerous, I think our mantra should be, 'Let's call it off.' I would love to see more chasers develop that mentality."
Josh Wurman, a tornado and hurricane expert and the founder of Boulder's Center for Severe Weather Research, agrees there are "daredevils" in the weather-chasing community but says that, despite the death of his friend Tim Samaras, covering extreme weather "isn't that dangerous statistically." Wurman, who has appeared on Storm Chasers, says the media should avoid "branding normal weather with terms like 'snowpocalypse' and 'superstorm.' It's a misleading sort of entertainment that fuels the chasers to take reckless chances to find dramatic video to sell to TV."
Says Bettes, "Viewers are very desensitized, and they want to see the most extreme things. It's our responsibility to show people what weather is and what it's doing, but in a responsible manner."