Manitoba storm chasers hope to shave precious seconds off emergency alerts

Click to play video: 'Manitoba storm chasers providing crucial information in real-time'
Manitoba storm chasers providing crucial information in real-time
Storm chasers are known for running towards inclement weather systems when most people are trying to take cover, and as Global's Marek Tkach reports, they're not just doing it for a thrill – Aug 10, 2020

Technology in the 21st century is as accessible as it has ever been.

Applications like Facebook Live allow events to be streamed instantaneously to thousands or even millions of people, and when it comes to dangerous situations like volatile storms, that access to information can change lives.

On Friday, one such storm formed in the Virden area; eventually it would produce a tornado that killed two 18-year-olds from Melita and sent a Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation man to hospital with serious injuries.

Rather than rushing in the opposite direction or looking for shelter, Jordan Carruthers with Manitoba Storm Chasers was broadcasting video of the developing tornado live through Facebook and relaying what he was seeing to Environment Canada.

Read more: ‘Everybody is impacted’: Community grieves young couple killed in Virden, Man. tornado

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“I have a passion for weather, obviously, but a big reason why I’m out there is to try to get warnings issued in a timely manner,” Carruthers says.

“Environment Canada and the National Weather Service can only see what is happening on the top half of the storm, they can’t see what’s happening on the ground. So us as storm chasers are able to call in and report when we’re seeing areas of rotation forming long before it’s visible on radar.”

Environment Canada says in an email forecasters use a variety of inputs, such as numerical models, surface and atmospheric observations and satellite data, to detect and track severe weather.

A spokesperson adds the national weather radar network recently underwent a major upgrade.

Destruction left behind by a tornado that touched down near Virden, Manitoba. Joe Scarpelli / Global News

“On-site observations from the public are a valuable way of confirming the weather conditions that are occurring and help the forecasters to improve their understanding of the atmosphere which can lead to a more complete picture,” the statement reads.

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It adds it does not condone storm chasing due to the inherent danger. But Carruthers says it plays an important role in getting information out to as many people as quickly as possible.

He points to his Facebook and Twitter pages, which have over 44,000 and 1,300 followers, respectively.

“I will update (the pages) with livestreams or photos while I’m out there so (people) can actually see what’s happening, where it is, and if they need to seek shelter without getting their warnings, if anything were to happen where they didn’t receive a warning or something,” Carruthers says, adding a person may miss an Alert Ready alert for a variety of reasons.

Read more: Manitoba’s second emergency alert test results still hit and miss

Indeed, the emergency notification system has seen mixed results, especially over cellphones in rural areas.

Meantime, Neil McArthur, head of the philosophy department at the University of Manitoba, says although there are real risks involved, having more people reporting on events is an overall positive.

“Whether you’re talking about storms or protests or other kinds of public events, I think that visibility, accountability, (and) transparency, these are all things that come with having people with cameras filming events and that’s really positive,” McArthur says.

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“It’s good for the public, it’s good for democracy, and I think it’s good for journalism.”

First and foremost, there is the risk of personal injury or death, McArthur points out, but also too many people trying to get near an unfolding disaster could snarl first responders.

Destruction left behind by a tornado that touched down near Virden Manitoba. Joe Scarpelli / Global News

To counter those risks, McArthur suggests would-be storm chasers first tap into the vast online marketplace of ideas to find out for themselves what ethics, responsibilities and best practices are involved.

With easy access to cellphones with cameras and social media, there’s no sign the hobby-turned-public-service is going anywhere anytime soon.

“Basically it has brought the attention of storm chasing a lot more to the general public,” says Carruthers, discussing the impact of social media.

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“It has definitely helped us reach more people, it’s given us more ways to warn people … we can get it out there right away so they’re able to take the appropriate measures to seek shelter.”

Click to play video: 'Storm chasing growing trend in Alberta'
Storm chasing growing trend in Alberta

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the university where Neil McArthur works.

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