Wednesday night I posted “Webstreaming Storm Trackers” to the ISTEconnects blog, and noted how webstreaming technologies along with more pervasive cell tower connectivity is empowering a new generation of storm trackers / storm chasers to broadcast “live” from the field as severe weather hits local communities. Actual storm spotters, in contrast to amateur storm chasers, perform a vital role during severe thunderstorms in providing on-site reporting about suspected tornados which have a characteristic, tornadic radar signature. According to NOAA’s official “Introduction to Storm Observation and Reporting” webpage:

Even with all the technology used by the National Weather Service to prepare severe weather warnings, storm spotters still give us the most complete picture of what’s really happening in and around severe storms. Radar simply cannot tell us everything we need to know. Storm spotters are the eyes and ears in the field.

For more than 60 years, storm spotters have been the Nation’s first line of defense against deadly storms. Working with their local communities and with the local National Weather Service office, spotters provide invaluable assistance and critical information to decision makers when hazardous weather threatens. Countless lives have been saved because of this unique partnership between volunteer storm spotters, emergency management and the National Weather Service.

For better or for worse, advances in mobile webstreaming and webcasting technologies have ushered in a day when increasing numbers of people are putting themselves in harms way and broadcasting the results, most likely hoping for publicity and a moment of fame for their shared video footage. While increased connectivity and video sharing can be used in positive, constructive ways, it also is and can be used in harmful ways which can encourage people to take foolish risks. The following story is a case in point.

This evening I watched the CNN iReport and subsequent interview over the phone with Missouri resident Michael Ambrosia, who rather recklessly got within about 50 feet of a tornado this past Wednesday in the video sequence he shared on the iReport website.

In his CNN interview, Michael reveals that a few minutes later after his iReport footage stopped, he drove further but stopped his car. The same tornado actually passed over his location, and he caught that moment on video. Michael posted that longer length video to his account on YouTube.

As humans, many of us seem to be psychologically wired to be interested and intrigued by video sequences like this. Clearly CNN producers know this, and although the CNN interviewer makes a statement at the end about viewers not endangering themselves to get footage for iReports, the implicit message here is, “This is exactly what we are looking for when it comes to citizen-produced media and journalism.” In some respects, I think it is unfortunate CNN chose to broadcast and amplify these moments of foolishness and poor judgement by Michael Ambrosia, since the rebroadcast of his video will likely encourage more people (probably young folks) to go out and attempt similar videography near tornados. This is a grim prediction, but I strongly suspect it is only a matter of time before we hear a news report about a tornado chaser with a flash-based camcorder who gets killed because s/he got too close to the storm. I hope that will not be the case, but it seems we’re on that sort of trajectory.

Michael Ambrosia: I’m glad you were not injured or killed as you took this footage on Wednesday of the tornado in Novinger, Missouri. I commend you for not using profanity in those moments of stress as the tornado actually passed over your location. I noticed you titled your re-posted video “My Tornado Encounter 13MAY09, lessons to learn” but you did not indicate in the video that you’d learned any lessons, or that any were there to learn. I suspect the lesson many people may learn from your experience is, “Hey, I need to get my own flash-based camcorder and get in my car next time there are tornados around, so I can get interviewed on CNN like Michael did.” While I think it can be a very positive thing to encourage people to become citizen journalists, I think it is also imperative that we emphasize ethics and good decision making in multiple contexts. I think you have a window of opportunity here to encourage others to use better judgement than you did on Wednesday, and be specific about what people should do. I would suggest this include:

1. Do not chase tornados unless you are traveling with others who are knowledgeable, experienced storm chasers and storm trackers using radios, radar, and other equipment to carefully monitor storm situations at all times.

2. Do not put your own life at risk to simply try and capture some video footage which may be memorable. Being an iReporter can be both fun and valuable for others, but it is not worth it to recklessly risk your life for video of a tornado. Life is precious, and no one’s life should be sacrificed for storm footage no matter how enthralling or exciting it might be.

— end of message for Michael —

Professional stormchasers are now trying (through June 14th) to capture better data than ever before about tornados and severe storms here in the midwest. See the CNN article from Thursday, “Scientists chasing killer tornadoes across Midwest” for more information about VORTEX2. According to the VORTEX2 website:

VORTEX2 is by far the largest and most ambitious effort ever made to understand tornadoes. We expect over 100 scientists and crew in up to 40 science and support vehicles to participate in this unique, fully nomadic, field program in May/June 2009-2010. The National Science Foundation (NSF) foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA) together are contributing over $10 million towards this effort. Participants will be drawn from several universities, and several government and private organizations, and will be international including members from Italy, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

The basic questions are simple to ask, but hard to answer.

– How, when, and why do tornadoes form? Why some are violent and long lasting while others are weak and short lived?

– What is the structure of tornadoes? How strong are the winds near the ground? How exactly do they do damage?

– How can we learn to forecast tornadoes better? Current warnings have an only 13 minute average lead time and a 70% false alarm rate. Can we make warnings more accurate? Can we warn 30, 45, 60 minutes ahead?

It is great scientists are embarking on this study to better understand tornados, so more accurate predications as well as storm tracking can take place to protect and save lives. For those of us living in the midwest, I think it is an important “safety topic” to discuss how we should leave the tornado chasing and videography to the professionals, even though CNN likely wants more iReports like Michael’s.

I think this situation can provide a good case study / teachable moment for participants in our StoryChaser digital storytelling workshops / Celebrate Oklahoma Voices workshops. There are some very important safety lessons to learn here.

As a final related note, I’d mention that one of our neighbors just had an in-ground “Flat-Safe” tornado shelter installed in their garage this morning. The total cost (installed) for this 6-person shelter is about $3500. This is the design originally developed by the Texas Tech University Wind Science and Engineering Research Center, and is capable of withstanding a F5 tornado.

A Flatsafe.com tornado shelter

Installation of a Flatsafe.com tornado shelter

FlatSafe Tornado Shelters

We don’t have a tornado shelter or a basement in our house, and neither do the vast majority of our neighbors at this point. I wish we did.

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