As a weather geek, I'm often guilty of 'oohing' and 'ahhing' over a tornado signature on radar. Tornadoes are my favorite part of meteorology — I want to write about them even in the dead of winter when it's 20° and snowing. For as incredible as they are, the intense interest requires a delicate balance between fascination and sensitivity to what the storm is doing "in real life," so to speak.
One of the most angering things during springtime tornado outbreaks is reading what storm chasers post on Facebook and Twitter. Understandably, they're out to chase tornadoes. They want to see them. Some are genuinely in the chasing business for research, while others are in it for the thrill of getting the perfect picture or seeing one in person.
Chasers cross the line when they start whooping and hollering about huge tornadoes in residential areas. It's like the adrenaline prevents them from realizing that they're witnessing people's lives getting torn apart a mere mile or two away from their makeshift parking spot on the side of the highway.
I refuse to chase because I have no desire to either a) watch people die, or b) see the aftermath of a tornado, but as an avid observer of severe weather from the sidelines, I try like hell (and sometimes fail) to strike the right balance between enthrallment and empathy.
Take the Joplin, Missouri tornado, for instance. The storm had a breathtaking presentation on Doppler radar. This image shows base reflectivity (precipitation) on the left, with base velocity (winds) on the right. The debris in the tornado is extremely visible as a two-mile wide ball on the reflectivity image, while the intense circulation is seen on the velocity image to the right. It's impossible to be both a weather geek and not impressed by that radar image.
A similar situation unfolded in Moore, Oklahoma last summer. I liveblogged the catastrophe from the beginning of the outbreak until nightfall on that gut-wrenching day in late May. Watching the storm unfold in Moore was both intriguing (as a news helicopter recorded almost the entire storm on live television) and terrifying as it sunk in that Moore was being ripped apart.
Stuff like that is intensely interesting to watch, but it also brings the horrific realization that people's homes, cars, belongings, and the people themselves are the reason that debris ball is showing up on radar. It's a strange feeling to have an intense fascination with what you're seeing alongside the crushing, heart-sinking reality that people are dying. Both the Joplin and Moore tornadoes mentioned above were devastating, top-of-the-scale EF-5s, collectively killing almost 200 people.
My ultimate goal in writing about the weather is to try to get weather information to people, especially in emergency situations. This is the same goal shared by the vast majority of weather watchers both on and off the internet, but some take it too far into the realm of callousness. If you're a storm chaser or just like to post about the weather on Facebook or Twitter, remember that the tornado you're cheering on or writing about isn't just a radar image — it's doing real damage to real people.