Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Parallels between Storm Chasing and Backcountry Skiing

There has been considerable coverage the past few days of the unfortunate deaths of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young in the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado on Friday.  This post is not to comment on that incident, which to my knowledge has yet to be fully investigated.  Instead, I wish to draw some parallels between storm chasing and backcountry skiing as I wonder if the two groups might be able to learn from each other.

Like the backcountry ski community of Utah, a wide range of individuals participate in storm chasing.  These individuals include (but are not limited to) research meteorologists using mobile radars and other instruments to try and better understand tornado dynamics and processes, volunteers attempting to provide ground truth for weather warnings and their verification, professional storm chasers taking photos and videos for resale, people on guided tours (yes, they do that!), and folks just out for fun.  You can draw a parallel to the Utah backcountry ski community, which consists of snow-safety professionals, pro skiers and photographers, guided tour groups, and folks just out for fun.

A remarkably large number of people can be out storm chasing.  The YouTube video below (by Whacky Rat) shows the approximate positions of the El Reno tornado and the various storm chasers.

Like the Utah backcountry ski community, the knowledge and experience of the storm chasing community varies.  There are people with severe storm expertise and storm-chasing experience, people with  severe storm expertise but limited storm-chasing experience, people with limited severe storm expertise but considerable storm-chasing experience, and people with limited severe storm expertise and limited storm-chasing experience.

There is a tendency for the public and the media to equate knowledge and experience with safety, but human factors have been shown to contribute to most avalanche accidents, which have claimed individuals ranging from inexperienced to the highly experienced in snow safety practices.  As Ian McCammon wrote in his 2002 ISSW paper Evidence of Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents, "Even though people are capable of making decisions in a thorough and methodical way, it appears most of the time they don't."  As the saying goes, most avalanche accidents happen by choice, not chance.

The problem is that human factors complicate thorough and methodical decision making, even by experts.  In backcountry skiing, these human factors include powder fever, group think (it is well documented that larger groups inhibit the sharing of information and concerns), expert halo (deferring concerns because of the presence of a more experience group member or guide), overconfidence, peer pressure, occupational pressure, Kodak courage, and familiarity (I've skied this run a hundred times in conditions like this, so let's ski it today).

I have a very limited experience as a storm chaser [I prefer storm chasing Utah style (i.e., for powder)], but see a strong parallel with backcountry skiing.  The human factors noted above (use irrational exuberance as a generic substitute for powder fever) complicate decision making an all sorts of situations.  I'm not sure how strong the parallels are between storm chasing and backcountry skiing, but perhaps there is something that the two groups can learn from each other, including in the area of education.


  1. We are, then, predictably irrational.

  2. "but perhaps there is something that the two groups can learn from each other"
    Perhaps they can start using tranceivers so that one can locate his/her buddy after he/she is swept up in a tornado. Avalanche air bags could probably help with the flying debris too. :)