How does storm chasing compare to other high-risk activities?

Jan 14, 2011
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I have always felt the need to start coming up with some reliable numbers on storm chasing risks. There are those overplaying and others downplaying the risk. Who is right?

I know that risk varies with different chase styles, the region chased, etc, but we have to start somewhere. Let's do that with getting some examples of fatality rates of other popular elevated-to-high risk leisure activities. These all have similar risk variables that storm chasing does, but they still come up with figures.

Whitewater rafting


The metric used in this sport is deaths per "person days". A person day is defined as a day in which an individual participates in the activity for any length of time. Their figures on death rates for guided expeditions (the ones most amateurs like you and me would do) is 6 to 10 per year for 2.5 million person days, or a maximum of 1 in 250,000 in the worst years.

The CNN story referenced in the above web site reports numbers as high as 50 deaths per year. The point made in the rebuttal is that most of those deaths are with non-guided rafters and kayakers.

Skydiving


Skydiving reports annual death rates averaging 21.3 per 3.3 million jumps, or one in 154,929. The "person days" will be lower than this (meaning more dangerous), how much depends on how many participants do multiple jumps per day.

Rock Climbing


This activity is harder to get an overall figure out of because death rates are assigned more to individual climbing sites (mountains, etc) than overall. However, a 2007 study referenced in the above link produced a figure of 1 in 320,000 climbs. Again, like skydiving, multiple climbs in a day will decrease the "person day" total (meaning more dangerous). This doesn't include the more extreme climbing like K2 and Everest that have death rates as high as 1 in 3!

Skiing


51 fatalities/year in 50 million "person days" (using the whitewater rafting term) results in an annual rate of 1 in 944,444.

Storm Chasing

To come up with a useful comparative figure, we need to adopt a similar metric as the other activities do. The whitewater rafting "person day" is easy to translate to chasing. That is, any day when a person chases for any length of time. So, the task is to figure out how many "person days" chasers collectively log annually.

The Spotter Network chaser count discussions we've had lately have been the only thing I can draw from, and those estimates still vary greatly. Refining those numbers will be key. If 90% of chasers beacon on SN, then we'd have something like 700-1,000 person days for every day during peak season just in the Great Plains alone. If the more liberal estimates are true, then we'd be looking at numbers between 7,000 and 10,000 person days daily for that same time period, again, that is Plains only. That's going to make for a huge variation in death rate estimates, but we'll do it anyway.

Right now I have no hard data on how chaser numbers increase through the season, but let's start with developing a formula to use with the various estimates. First, come up with a breakdown of the various time periods:

P = Peak daily chaser numbers in late May

Late May (16 days): Px16
Early May - Late June (30 days): Px30 / 3 = Px10
April (30 days): Px30 / 4 = Px7.5
March and July (62 days): Px62 / 10 = Px6.2
All other months (211 days): Px211 / 20 = Px10.55

Simplifying, we get:

Person days annually = Px50.25

That would give us a range of 35,175 to 502,500 person days in storm chasing annually. In the 14-year period since 2005, we know of 13 total deaths in the activity from both car accidents and tornadoes, or a little less than 1 per year average. That makes it easy to compare to the other activities once we can refine the chaser number issue. With that large of a spread in person day estimates, chasing could be either far more dangerous than the other referenced activities or on the safer side of the scale, with only skiing being the other "dangerous sport" that is safer than chasing.

So, it looks like to answer this question, we'll need to work on getting the Spotter Network ratio nailed down.
 
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Warren Faidley

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We often forget that most of the aforementioned activities are either partially regulated by internal or external organizations. But most importantly, unlike those activities, chasing occurs on public roads where the participation interacts with the general public. Rarely do any of the other noted activities involve public danger.
 
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K. Gentry

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Pamplona, Spain. The Running of the Bulls. But then again, it's sectioned-off from the public. We do get to see how people would react if a T-Rex were chasing them. lol.
 

Warren Faidley

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Storm chasing is likely safer than Scuba Diving, Technical Mountain Climbing, and even running marathons. Check it out!

Storm Tourism Controversy, Again

Person days are not analyzed, but the point is that (non-extreme) storm chasing is pretty tame.

That information is incomplete. It does not account for the other amateur chasers killed on the El Reno day, nor TWC's-related accidents that killed 3 and injured several. This all occurring in a short time span since the theme of chasing has become more extreme for some. I would have to agree that "non-extreme" chasing is basically safe, with other idiot drivers the biggest danger.
 
Jul 5, 2009
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Dan, kudos on taking the time to figure out a reasoned mathematical methodology, i.e. coming up with empirical not just anecdotal evidence. I don’t pretend to have given it a huge amount of thought or to be able to offer alternatives, but one thing that comes to mind is that the “person days” concept is pretty hard to apply. It looks like you are including all calendar days in the peak period, but of course the fact is that many days are not chase days, other days are chase days that bust, etc. It also seems necessary to differentiate between tornado days / non-tornado days, truly nasty HP days vs more relaxed LP/classic chases, maybe MDT/HIGH risk vs SLIGHT/ENH, etc. An impossible array of variables, really. Just not enough of a way to establish a control group so to speak. Not sure the other adventure sports have quite as many variable, but I could be wrong, I guess I just don’t know enough because I don’t participate in them. Not sure how much of your time this exercise is even worth, I mean we can count on one hand the number of deaths directly attributable to storm chasing. I don’t think we should count the traffic accidents. That would be like saying it’s dangerous to go to football games just because someone got killed by another fan that drove while intoxicated after their tailgating party.
 

Darren Lo

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Feb 25, 2012
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Does SN keep a full database of past spotter positions and reports? If so, working with that (or an anonymized version if necessary to protect privacy) might be a good starting point. Otherwise you are dealing with unknown levels of SN activity as well as the unknown beaconing rate.
 

MichaelF

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Feb 18, 2019
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I think Pecos Hank said it best (I'm paraphrasing) that it's not the tornado or the monster hail that is most dangerous, it's all the driving. You're far more likely to be in a traffic accident than anything else, but there are plenty of hazards and most probably won't kill you but let's just say you might find yourself in a Nissan Sentra for the drive back home.
 
Jan 14, 2011
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Here are a couple more activities I did some cursory research on:

Horseback Riding

Finding a number comparable to the "person day" metric of the above activities has been difficult for horseback riding. No source gives a comparable figure. Here are some of the numbers:

- 7 million people ride horses in the US annually
- 100 deaths per year from horseback riding
- Average ride is 1 hour long
- Average horse owner rides 1 hour per day
- In the UK, death rates are 1 per 10,000 participants
- 1 accident (with at least injury) per 2,000 riding hours




Motorcycle Riding


The metric used for motorcycle riding risk is deaths per 100 million miles traveled. For the 2007-2015 period, the number is between 23-25 per 100 million miles.

Again, this isn't convertable to the "person day" metric used for the first batch of example activities. We'll need to come up with deaths per 100 million miles rate for chasing to compare to motorcycle riding. Add that to the list of figures we need to work on deriving.
 

John Farley

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You probably also need to consider boating and fishing. I found a statistic of 5.9 per hundred thousand annually for boating, which if accurate is probably more than storm chasing. And it is widely cited that fishing causes more deaths than most other recreational activities per year (mostly from drowning), though it is hard to find hard numbers. Here are a couple links:

Boating: Boating Fatality Facts

Fishing: What Sport Has the Most Deaths?
 
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Nice discussion! How about looking at the stats on road casualties too? To me, much of storm chasing is basically being a driver, and so the biggest driver of risk is, as with any other user, the risk from driving. You could then work out, on the basis of storm-related chaser deaths, how much more dangerous storm chasing is when compared with driving per se.
 
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Warren Faidley

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The problem with comparing storm chasing to other activities is the infrequent nature of really risky days, when violent (or dangerous to chase) tornadoes do occur. This might be 2-5 days a year. Even those partipating in other sports have a chance of motor vehicle or other transportion-related accidents. Maybe someone already covered this and I overlooked the post. Hypothetically, if one could chase violent, large, rain-hidden, fast moving tornadoes on a daily basis then the death rate would be a lot higher.
 
Jan 14, 2011
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Warren, that's true. However, in at least some of the above examples, the more "extreme" variants of the sports are not included in the cited totals. The whitewater rafting example is for all guided expeditions like the ones most people will go on. It excludes the private and solo rafters/paddlers which go after the more extreme conditions (Class V events and such) and have much higher death rates. Including those makes the death rates 5 times higher. Same goes for rock climbing - some of the more extreme climbing sites have very high death rates that aren't reflected in the overall figures (for example, Annapurna in Nepal has a climber death rate of 1 out of every 3).

We might want to classify chasing sytles. I think there are very few "in the debris cloud of violent tornadoes" style chasers which are what everyone tends to be so worried about. There are maybe a dozen or so of those. Then there are the "experienced and aggressive" ones that will do things like go into the notch of HPs and seek to get within 1/2 mile of tornadoes (where I see myself). There might be 100-150 of us. Then the rest which number probably in the 1000-2000 or more range, not counting locals, are either very conservative or inexperienced.
 

Shane Adams

Chasing is unique from all other activities listed, because it's the only one of the lot that is not_inherently_dangerous. Skiing, you're flying across country or down a mountain, period. Climbing, you're on the side of a cliff one equipment failure or slip away from a fall, period. Sky diving, you're free-falling from an aircraft, hoping your chute opens correctly, period. The most dangerous aspects of storm chasing are_created_by_the_chasers themselves, they are not "built-in."
 
Jun 4, 2018
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I know this is an old thread, but has there been any more work on this? I've been told that when I go to request my leave for the end of May this year to chase, I will likely have to make a case to my commander concerning safety before it gets approved. I remembered seeing this thread when it was new and figured any info here could be useful.

EDIT: I decided to do some digging myself along the lines of what was done here. While not as in depth as Dan's equations, I looked at the "Tornadoes of 20xx" pages from 2011-2020 on Wikipedia. At the top, these pages claim to list "notable tornadoes and tornado outbreaks". I didn't include events outside the US or events that were directly contributed to tropical cyclones. I counted all other dates listed for each year and averaged them. Being "notable", in the US, and not contributed directly to tropical cyclones, these days seemed to be the most likely days chasers were out in the traditional sense. While this number doesn't have a way to take into account the danger of the day (HP, terrain, etc), and chaser numbers are still a huge wild card, it could be a starting point for a simpler "person day" 10 year average.

2011: 73; 2012: 51; 2013: 43; 2014: 45; 2015: 38; 2016: 45; 2017: 48; 2018: 51; 2019: 50; 2020: 44. Average = 48.8 days/ year
 
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Warren Faidley

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Storm chasing is as safe as you make it -- likely no more dangerous than a cross country road trip, but with a few wild cards thrown in.

Ground transportation is still the most dangerous factor, followed by poor decision making in routing vs. dangerous circulations, hail, wind, dust, etc. The driving element has a strong X-factor because you are at the mercy of other drivers who may be distracted, driving under the influence, etc. You also have issues with being trapped or unfavorably routed by chase hoards. As for routing, you can always adjust your path accordingly, by how experienced you are, your skills at radar interpretation and analyzing visual storm features in relation to mapping. Think visualizing in 3D.

I still think chasing is extremely dangerous for the upper 3 percent of very aggressive chasers. The only reason many are still alive is because they are a: skilled, b: lucky, c: don't have enough violent weather to chase. The safety numbers in regards to chasing are skewed because there are too few of the upper-ended, violent events to provide accurate statistics. For example, with white-water rafting, skydiving, base jumping, etc., you can calculate risk factors because x number of people can preform this activity all year long. It's simple math. Since ultra-aggressive chasing styles only started in the last 10 years, with a decreasing number of violent storms, there is no accurate way to calculate risk. It's also impossible to know with any accuracy how many chasers are actually on a specific, violent storm, especially in the southern states. If you had El Reno-style events several times a year, the chaser death toll would be much higher.

I suppose a rough calculation could be made by studying the last ten years. There have been around 10 deaths (experienced and amateur) and at least 3-4 serious injuries, so the average would be 1 death per year and .40 serious injuries. Feel free to correct me here.

It would be much easier to calculate non-storm-related driving risks.

Keeping a safe, comfortable, skill-level distance from dangerous storm features, avoid driving in hoards and limiting late night travel will greatly reduce the risks. Most importantly, don't fall under the spell of "I'm invincible" while chasing. This misleading theme has injured and killed chasers and will likely harm more in the future.
 
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Jun 4, 2018
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Storm chasing is as safe as you make it -- likely no more dangerous than a cross country road trip, but with a few wild cards thrown in.

Ground transportation is still the most dangerous factor, followed by poor decision making in routing vs. dangerous circulations, hail, wind, dust, etc. The driving element has a strong X-factor because you are at the mercy of other drivers who may be distracted, driving under the influence, etc. You also have issues with being trapped or unfavorably routed by chase hoards. As for routing, you can always adjust your path accordingly, by how experienced you are, your skills at radar interpretation and analyzing visual storm features in relation to mapping. Think visualizing in 3D.

I still think chasing is extremely dangerous for the upper 3 percent of very aggressive chasers. The only reason many are still alive is because they are a: skilled, b: lucky, c: don't have enough violent weather to chase. The safety numbers in regards to chasing are skewed because there are too few of the upper-ended, violent events to provide accurate statistics. For example, with white-water rafting, skydiving, base jumping, etc., you can calculate risk factors because x number of people can preform this activity all year long. It's simple math. Since ultra-aggressive chasing styles only started in the last 10 years, with a decreasing number of violent storms, there is no accurate way to calculate risk. It's also impossible to know with any accuracy how many chasers are actually on a specific, violent storm, especially in the southern states. If you had El Reno-style events several times a year, the chaser death toll would be much higher.

I suppose a rough calculation could be made by studying the last ten years. There have been around 10 deaths (experienced and amateur) and at least 3-4 serious injuries, so the average would be 1 death per year and .40 serious injuries. Feel free to correct me here.

It would be much easier to calculate non-storm-related driving risks.

Keeping a safe, comfortable, skill-level distance from dangerous storm features, avoid driving in hoards and limiting late night travel will greatly reduce the risks. Most importantly, don't fall under the spell of "I'm invincible" while chasing. This misleading theme has injured and killed chasers and will likely harm more in the future.
All very good points. I mostly referred back to this thread and started looking for myself so I can get some sort of number to put in a slide show so I can convince the powers that be that it will be safe for me to take off a few weeks and go chasing. Obviously getting an accurate number, as already stated above, is next to impossible. But a ball park figure I can put in a chart next to other "high risk activities" (there is an actual high risk activity waiver I'll have to fill out, that folks who do those other activities also have to complete) should be sufficient for my needs I hope.
 
Jul 5, 2009
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Michael, I don’t think you are going to be able to put together any fancy stats for this like “person days,” and I don’t think it’s worth doing. All of the variables Warren talks about are of course correct, but what person other than a meteorologist or chaser is going to have any appreciation or understanding of those nuances anyway? You need to keep it simple for your commander. All you should present is something simple, such as the 10 deaths in the past 10 years that Warren cited (noting that a number of those are just driving related, three were researchers purposely trying to get in the path, etc.) Better for your commander to *not* realize some of the nuances Warren points out, such as there being fewer high-end days in recent years. Ten deaths in ten years, with the caveats noted earlier, should not sound like a lot to him, especially in comparison to other activities like skydiving and, of course, normal driving.