Oklahoma Tornadoes, Extreme Weather Inspire Social Media 'Storm Chasers' To Take Risks

05/21/2013 08:18 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2013

When Tim Baker began racing to the front lines of unfolding natural disasters 18 years ago, it was just him, his video cameras and the tornado.

But those "good old days" are over. Now, when Baker chases tornadoes, he finds himself joined by a mix of curious onlookers, amateurs taking photos with smartphones, and a growing cadre of self-made, semi-professional storm chasers -- seeking adventure, wealth or at least exposure for storm videos distributed via social media.

"In the last three years it's become ridiculous," said Baker, who spoke to HuffPost a day after the latest deadly twister carved its way through central Oklahoma, part of a landscape known as "Tornado Alley." When he's going after twisters, he'll see as many as 15 to 20 cars joining him, many with local license plates, the drivers armed with amateur equipment like small video cameras and smartphones that can record HD video.

Whether any storm chasers were caught in latest Oklahoma storm remains uncertain, but a surplus of viral videos posted to the web offer testimony to the increasing prevalence of the amateurs Baker routinely sees.

"They don't weigh the risks," said Baker, who was featured on The Weather Channel's "Tornado Road" in 2008. "They go out there to shoot it to show everybody and to brag about it. They'll walk around with it on their cellphone for a month."

The advent of such reality television shows centered on extreme weather, coupled with social media, has put more people in harm's way when natural disaster strikes, he said. "You really have to have a plan whenever you park to film that you can get out of there quickly," said Baker. "You've got to be positive about that."

For as long as there have been storms, there have been storm chasers, said Mark Fox, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, Texas. Now it's just easier.

Social media and smartphones have brought tremendous access to a job that was once limited to those who could afford expensive and unwieldy recording equipment. The same platforms and technologies that an agency like NWS uses for public safety are now increasingly being used by everyday citizens to record and share the dangerous events they're supposed to avoid. Suddenly an eager -- and potentially dangerous -- flock of amateurs is taking up the chase.

"In the last couple years, with the proliferation of cameras, it just became easier to go out after a storm," Fox said. "The guys on TV make it look really easy, and in reality, it's not. It takes a lot of training, it takes a lot of experience, and not a whole lot of people really put that time in, and they tend to go after the storms. It gets some people in trouble sometimes."

Dr. Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and the author of iDisorder, says the feedback loop of social media drives people to become obsessive about checking their phones and social networks.

"I think one of the most powerful things that we're seeing in the sort of cyberspace world is this incessant drive to get accolades," Rosen said. "The accolades come from a lot of places -- number of views, number of likes, the number of comments you get."

And he noted that ready access to technology such as smartphones can get in the way of good decision-making. Rosen calls this the "can/should paradox."

"Just because you can take a picture of this twister coming at you, should you?" he asked. "Is this a smart decision?"

Fox told HuffPost that the NWS has seen an increase in people getting dangerously close to extreme weather. During Monday's tornado in Oklahoma, one of these people was Douglas Sherman.

Sherman captured dramatic video of the twister, which was uploaded to CNN's "iReport" website, a citizen journalism initiative. Anderson Cooper then interviewed Sherman on CNN Tuesday.

"I was listening to the local news and they said if you are pretty much above ground you won't make it," Sherman told Cooper. "I was like, 'This is not good,' because I was watching it and filming it ... I thought I was more ahead of it than I was. I made that turn and I saw it coming right at me."

Sherman escaped the twister by reversing and spinning his car around at an intersection, which he acknowledged wasn't "the smartest thing to do."

Outlets like iReport, along with The Weather Channel's "iWitness" and YouTube, serve as repositories for amateur-created extreme-weather content. A YouTube search for "Oklahoma tornado 2013" yields nearly 100,000 results uploaded this week. Many are shaky videos of the tornado and appear to be taken by non-professionals.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar, editor of iReport, told The Huffington Post that since this past weekend, she's received more than 100 submissions of eye-witness accounts via photo, video and text related to the tornadoes and severe weather in Oklahoma.

Since iReporters and iWitnesses typically aren't paid, one of the incentives for people to submit these videos is exposure -- the chance that their pieces could end up on CNN or The Weather Channel. Popular YouTube videos likewise are often featured on television and news sites.

Both Hawkins-Gaar and Neil Katz, vice president and digital editor-in-chief for The Weather Channel, stressed that their first priority is citizen reporters' safety.

"Your life is not worth a viral video," said Katz, formerly an executive news editor at HuffPost. "The story will go on. If you run headlong into a storm, you may not."

But, he said, "You can't deny that some of the most compelling images -- whether armed conflicts, political protests or severe weather -- are coming from the people, not the pros. Smartphones and social media have just changed how people react."

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story noted Sherman's video had been removed from the iReport site. CNN says that video was removed due to a technical error and that Sherman's iReport can be found here.

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