How COVID-19 has turned the world of storm chasing upside down
To chase, or not to chase, during a pandemic? It's a question many who log thousands of miles every spring in pursuit of nature's spectacles are asking.
For most of the world, working from home means turning a spare room or a kitchen table into a workspace. But for those whose workspace has never been confined to a desk or a building, the impact of social distancing has hit much differently.
The life and location of a professional storm chaser can change every week, depending on where the next major weather event occurs. With different forms of observable weather in any number of states, much of the storm chaser's life is spent on the road, driving for hours or days to capture a few minutes of nature's breathtaking power.
But like the rest of the world, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have turned that life upside down. The chase is still on -- but how do you do it in the age of social distancing? Could cyber-chasing be a thing? Some pro storm chasers talked with AccuWeather and gave us the inside scoop.
"We’ve had to change our chasing style, our way of life completely," said Aaron Rigsby, a storm chaser with KKTV 11 News in Colorado.
"My whole career has been basically living in disaster areas and now, the whole country is a disaster area," Brandon Clement of WXChasing.com said. "It's not typical to what you would see with a hurricane or tornado, but it's essentially a disaster area. The biggest difference now is that I'm not looking for downed power lines or gas leaks, but rather contact with people that I'm staying away from." Footage captured by Clement appears often on the AccuWeather TV network and on AccuWeather.com.
Drone footage captured on March 24 of a tornado developing over a river in Tishomingo, Mississippi. (AccuWeather/Brandon Clement)
Like the severe storms themselves, the future of chasing operations is unclear as many chasers have no idea when the storminess of the coronavirus situation may clear or if there may be any 2020 severe season to salvage.
For some, like photographer Colin Davis, the pandemic directly hits his favorite hobby and way to "witness the wonder of nature." For others, like Dr. Jeff Frame, a professor at University of Illinois, this era of social distancing has disrupted classroom procedures and the gathering of research.
Others still, like AccuWeather National Reporter Blake Naftel, meteorologist Andrew Pritchard, who cover extreme weather alongside Davis, and Rigsby and Clement, both of whom storm chase with Live Storms Media, depend on severe weather coverage for their livelihood as members of the media.
Some chasers have essential worker clearances from their employers that allow them to travel across state borders and access areas. However, simply having that issuance doesn't take away from the potential danger that could accompany a storm chasing trip.
Blake Naftel, Colin Davis, Dr. Jeff Frame and Andrew Pritchard gathered on Zoom to discuss how social distancing has impacted their lives as storm chasers. (AccuWeather / Blake Naftel)
The value of the trip is an important factor Naftel said he has to consider now when determining the risk of traveling, a sentiment echoed by Davis.
"I would certainly hope that it's a discussion that every chaser is having. There's many reasons people go out and their motivations for why they're chasing, it varies person to person," Davis said. "A lot of the areas that we chase -- specifically in the Plains and in rural areas -- those are areas that are going to be especially vulnerable during a pandemic because of limited resources and limited medical infrastructure. So one person bringing a case into an area like that could be theoretically devastating … that’s something I don’t take lightly when making a decision like that."
As Clement said, having the essential worker clearance doesn't give any excuse for a chaser to be negligent.
A chaser's vehicle in pursuit of a storm. (AccuWeather)
"Since social distancing, I haven't had contact with anybody for almost a month," Clement said. "I've just got to do what I've got to do to keep my family safe but also to do what I do for work in the media aspect. Even with the stay-at-home orders, I'm essential media and so I'm considered essential, but I can't be out doing the things that I normally do like staying in hotels and eating at restaurants and stuff like that. I don't care if I'm essential or not, it doesn't give me the right to put others in danger."
Since states began pushing social distancing policies and stay-at-home orders, every aspect of a storm chasing trip has been affected, even at the gas pump and the drive-through.
The use of gloves and disinfectant at gas station isn't just for the chaser's own sanitation, but also for the driver that comes next. The safety measures, from wearing gloves to wiping down the screens and buttons, aren't just for their own sanitation but are a crucial component of individual responsibility.
"Wiping down the keypad on the gas pump happens even during breaking weather events," Naftel said. "Last week here in west Michigan, we had severe weather and I had to top off the tank in Holland, Michigan, and I had to do all that while getting pelted by hail. I still have to make those efforts to not take any risks around the pumps."
Dr. Jeff Frame discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the field courses he had previously planned on teaching at University of Illinois this summer.
Even seemingly minor decisions, like going to the bathroom while out on the road, have come with more logistical headaches than ever before.
"Even walking into gas stations, when you have to use the restroom, which is just something that is out of your hands, wipe down everything before, after and wear either a glove or a carry a paper towel to open the door handle," Rigsby said.
Amid a chase, the decision of which roads to take and how to drive have even been impacted by social distancing. The potential of getting stuck in mud or pulled over by a police officer have new consequences in this era.
"There's so many layers to it. If you're going to chase, that's fine, but it needs to look differently," Pritchard said. "Do I want to risk going down that mud road, knowing that if I get stuck, farmer Joe is going to have to come out and pull me out with his tractor?" Pritchard wondered. "Every chase decision you make needs to be made knowing that you are self-sufficient."
While every type of chase is different, varying on the type of weather or region or season, the extra precautions and focus on self-sufficiency have made all recent chasing trips feel like hurricane chasing, Clement explained.
"With hurricane chasing, you have to assume that everything is closed, you have to bring all your own gear and be ready to sleep in cars, it's the same thing with social distancing," Clement said. "We're bringing our own food, our own water, staying away from people and sleeping in our cars. You're more isolated there than anywhere."
A tornado touches down as a storm chaser give pursuit. (AccuWeather)
That way of life has meshed well with the interests and normal lifestyles of some chasers.
"I've always been a bit of a minimalistic person, when I'm not storm chasing I’m spending my time in the mountains hiking and rock climbing away from people," Rigsby said. "Before I started pursuing freelance full time ... I was having way more interaction with people than I do storm chasing, driving through Kansas and Oklahoma and seeing maybe two or three people at a gas station. It’s a drastic difference. My whole lifestyle was kind of preparing for this moment, and I didn’t even realize it."
For as long as severe weather continues to captivate the world's attention, the chasers agreed that storm chasing will always play a role in the media's coverage.
However, not all elements of storm chasing are replicable or possible to pull off this season, such as storm chasing tours or classes involving field projects.
Frame heard from Illinois University officials in mid-March that all summer classes would be moved online through remote instruction. His current courses this spring have been transitioned to video courses, but the same can't be said for his summer courses which involve trips to witness the severe weather in person. Frame said his department head asked if there was any way his summer field courses could be done virtually, a sort of cyber-chasing, but Frame said it wouldn't be close to replicating the real experience.
"It’s not the same as watching a storm evolve from a towering cumulus into some kind of plasmic supercell or watching a wall cloud develop or watching a storm go HP or maybe a tornado or something ... So we had to make the decision to cancel," he said. "In a course, where I’m leading it and I have students, it’s my responsibility to keep them safe, not only doing things like not driving all night and staying out of the hail and staying far away from the storms, but also could I guarantee that they would be safe from infection if we left on May 21? Or could I guarantee that they wouldn’t asymptomatically transmit to other people?"
Summer courses at universities that go into severe weather areas have been mostly canceled this year due to the new coronavirus. (AccuWeather / Blake Naftel)
Along with the blow to universities and research initiatives, storm chasing tours depend on a short window on the calendar to make enough money for companies to survive the rest of the year. This year, social distancing may have shut that window.
"I heard that some of the private tour operators have been canceled and some have not," Frame said. "I know that if I was running a storm chase tour in late April, even though it'd be my livelihood if I was doing that, I would certainly think twice or three times before doing that right now."
Along with the logistical impossibilities that would surround many trips this year, a large percentage of storm chase tour goers come from other countries. With the current travel bans enacted by many nations around the world, getting to the United States in the first place would be unlikely for most.
Many of the chasers concurred that although the tour industry financially relies on those trips, conducting such tours would be irresponsible.
"It's going to crush some of those tornado tours," Clement said. "I’ve heard some rumors about some places not giving refunds to people, which is highly questionable and others that have said that they’re going to go out regardless, which is also highly questionable. Who am I to say? But," he continued, "I think these storm-chasing tours probably just need to shut it down and call it a year and gear up for next year. I can’t see how you can take people from all over the country or all over the world and keep them inside a tight van, running from hotel to hotel and town to town and be responsible in doing it."
There are many differing motivations for individuals to experience severe weather, from the tour-goers to the professionals, but the meaning and value of those chases have taken a far different focus in recent weeks.
For an enthusiast like Davis, having an extra set of eyes or another round of photos at a weather event may not outweigh the risk of infection.
"Does the advantage of being out there to offer an extra set of eyes outweigh the risk of a chaser infecting themselves or worse yet, being a vector of the disease? I think you’ll hear people say that they chase storms to save lives," Davis said. "To me, I think in action that mindset being a true priority is actually rare among storm chasers... I chase for seeing the amazing sights and getting good photographs and I chase for witnessing the wonder of nature … but saving lives for me isn’t the main purpose for chasing," he admitted. "But I think those mindsets need to be taken into account when considering whether chasing is going to be an essential trip for you."
One positive element that makes storm chasing extremely valuable, Clement said, is that it keeps people from getting in their cars to go see the destruction on their own.
"When you remove media and places are hit hard, people flock to there to see their house, to see their community and to see what happened. But when media people are on the ground sending back reports, it stops them from doing that," Clement said. "So when a tornado hits a town and there’s a lot of damage, people can see where the damage is and see where the tornado was, they can see what was impacted and it keeps them from going out, so it helps in that aspect. But it’s the same as every other person out there. If everyone is responsible and does the things they need to, this thing will pass and it will pass quickly."
Pritchard added that many states have still encouraged residents to enjoy outdoor activities responsibly amid social distancing guidelines. For some, he said, storm chasing is that outdoor activity.
Where the danger lies, however, is outside the chase and in the public gatherings, whether it's at a gas stations or a convergence of storm chasers at a scene.
For the professionals who spend their lives chasing nature's most destructive forces, it was a silent, invisible disease and not a raging storm that forced the chasing world to look inward.
"I think it goes beyond a legal issue; there’s probably enough exceptions to most of the states’ executive orders that you can justify chasing as a legal activity," Pritchard said. "I think each chaser is going to have to take it from a legal perspective and set that aside to look at it from a moral perspective and see what means to each individual person."
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