Since the mid-1990s, tourists can purchase storm-chasing tours to observe dangerous, potentially deadly natural phenomena—that companies cannot guarantee will occur. This context calls for a better understanding of the core aspect of the relationship between storm-chasing tourism and severe weather. What interest in severe weather spurs people to embark on storm-chasing tourism? How do they deal with severe weather becoming a tourist attraction through storm-chasing tourism? The present exploratory study investigates these questions using a qualitative methodology. It first examines the ways severe weather is depicted in participants’ discourse and on storm-chasing companies’ websites, illustrating they are multiple and intersecting. It then describes the various rationales used by tourists, guides, and owners when they discuss storm-chasing tourism turning severe weather into a tourist attraction, showing how the activity contributes to nature’s commodification process. Seeking to provide an initial anthropological interpretation of the findings, this study suggests that storm-chasing tourism brings together acceptance and exploitation of nature. Indeed, severe weather appears to be sought for its power over humans while also being marketed as an ordinary commodity. Albeit preliminary, this study sheds light on a fundamental feature of storm-chasing tourism that researchers have not yet fully addressed and enhances the comprehension of a piece of humankind’s relationship with nature in current Western societies.
The United States has by far the highest occurrence of tornadoes in the world, with an average of 1250 reported annually between 1991 and 2010 (NOAA 2016). Severe weather outbreaks cost millions in reconstruction (Brooks and Doswell 2001) and take lives every year, despite improved forecasting and early warning systems (Ashley 2007). While severe weather usually calls for precautionary actions (Drost 2013), these events have been pursued for tourism by storm-chasing companies since the mid-1990s. Interest in the activity flourished with the release of the box office success Twister in 1996 and has not faded in recent years, fueled by such television (TV) shows as Storm Chasers (2007–11) and Tornado Chasers (2012–14). With an ever-growing number of companies operating in the United States, storm-chasing tourism appears to be an enduring trend in nature-based adventure tourism.
Despite the activity’s popularity, Xu et al. (2012) stress a dearth of scientific data concerning storm-chasing tourism. Geographers pursued foundational work by exploring storm chasers’ behavior (Robertson 1999) and the characteristics of storm-chasing tours, including tourists’ sociodemographics (Bristow and Cantillon 2000; Cantillon and Bristow 2001). A decade later, a group of researchers from the University of Missouri conducted a study on the profiles and personality traits of storm-chasing tourists (Barbieri et al. 2010; Chen et al. 2012; Wilhelm Stanis and Barbieri 2012; Xu et al. 2012). The group also looked at tours’ operational attributes in seeking to identify those maximizing tourists’ experience and best meeting their specific needs. While this literature brought rich portrayals of tour operators and tourists, researchers have not addressed the core aspect of the relationship between severe weather and the people who participate in tours to chase storms. What interest in severe weather spur them to join in, knowing there is no guarantee any storms will occur during the tours? How do they deal with storm-chasing tourism turning dangerous, potentially deadly natural phenomena into a tourist attraction? The motivation behind this study is to explore these questions and thus shed light on a piece of the relationship with nature in today’s Western societies.
2. Theoretical background
Social science studies on the human–nature relationship show that nature is a social construct encompassing different meanings according to times, places, societies, and activities (e.g., Castree and Braun 2001; Cronon 1996b; Descola and Pálsson 1996; Ellen and Fukui 1996; Moran 2006). In Western societies, the nature–society nexus could be summarized in three types of interactions: protection, acceptance, and exploitation (Pálsson 1996). In the first case, humans feel responsible for protecting nature to ensure humankind’s future. Much of the environmental discourses are based on this understanding of nature (Hannigan 2014). In the second, humans accept nature as is because it is an independent realm driven by laws they do not fully understand (Descola 1996). This vision of an inscrutable nature incarnating both good and evil has been widely spread by the sublime doctrine of nineteenth-century Romantic movement: travelers were looking to experience a sublime nature in order “to glimpse the face of God” (Cronon 1996a, p. 73). In the final case, humans are masters of the world and nature thus exists to serve humans’ needs and desires. As a resource to be exploited, nature is commodified by turning “trees into timber, cows into livestock, rocks into gravel, and fast-running rivers into hydraulic power” (Frank 1997, p. 417). While categorizations are dualistic, the empirical reality shows that the same social group can interact with nature in plural ways.
3. Study context
Storm-chasing tourism is most prominent in the United States, due to the higher frequency and severity of atmospheric phenomena occurring over its territory. Since the first storm-chasing company began operating in 1993, about 45 have opened. As of 2016, there were 21 active storm-chasing companies, 9 of which were less than 10 years old (Table 1).
The goal of storm-chasing tourism is to enable tourists to observe severe weather phenomena at a distance, allowing picture and video taking, without endangering anyone. The most common modality is tour groups, costing between $800 and $5000 for a 3- to 14-day trip ($214–$500 daily). Prices vary based on the amenities offered, minimally covering ground transportation in vehicles equipped with storm-chasing equipment, and hotel accommodation. Most tours run from late April to June, months advertised as the peak of “tornado season” [see Brooks et al. (2003) for a discussion of tornadoes seasonality]. They depart from and return to a predetermined city, with preferred locations including Oklahoma City (Oklahoma), Tulsa (Oklahoma), Kansas City (Missouri), Dallas (Texas), Amarillo (Texas), and Denver (Colorado). Each tour is led by a dedicated driver and forecaster, often referred to as “guides” on storm-chasing companies’ websites. Guides do not necessarily hold a degree in meteorology; they often acquired their knowledge by chasing storms as a hobby. Company owners can also be tour guides.
A typical storm-chasing tour day starts with a morning briefing by guides about the day’s meteorological outlook. The group then heads out for the target city close to which, it is hoped, thunderstorms will form. After a highly variable waiting period (from a few minutes to a few hours), promising cells may initiate and be visible on the radar and in the sky, if the tour is close enough. Based on visual cues, radar data, and other meteorological observations, the forecaster determines which storms to follow and tells the driver where to go. The decision is influenced by meteorological factors, as well as the area’s road networks, topography, and population density. Once the destination is reached, tourists exit their vehicle (if conditions allow it) to observe the sky, before getting back in to be repositioned as the storm moves. This sequence usually continues until the sun sets, as most storm-chasing companies find it too risky to chase storms at night. Guides look for a place to eat and sleep, and start preparing for the next day.
This scoping study of storm-chasing tourism employed a qualitative approach, well suited to provide a primary description and interpretation of a phenomenon (Laperrière 1997; Fortin 2010). Three data collection methods were combined: participant observation, semistructured interviews, and Internet data collection. Most data were collected during a 3-month ethnographic fieldwork (May–July 2009), based out of Oklahoma City.
a. Participant observation
A preliminary web search conducted in November 2008 found 10 storm-chasing companies operating in the United States. These companies were contacted, and two responded positively to requests for participation (their names cannot be disclosed for confidentiality reasons). In total, three storm-chasing tours were joined: one as a regular guest and two as a student intern, for a discounted price. The activity’s high price prevented from joining more tours.
During those tours, participant observation was used to gather experiential knowledge about storm-chasing tourism. Anthropology’s foundational method of participant observation (Bernard 2011) consisted of first-hand involvement in storm-chasing tours’ day-to-day activities. Long drives, along with numerous waiting periods, were good opportunities to spark discussions about the activity’s attractiveness and severe weather becoming a tourist attraction through storm-chasing tourism. As observed by Lewis (2003), informal discussions complementing participant observation were fruitful: led in a convivial atmosphere, participants felt secure to share their views and to comment on each other’s interventions. Observations were noted in a fieldwork journal and issues raised were addressed in-depth in semistructured interviews.
b. Semistructured interviews
Following Bernard (2011), who argues that nonprobability sampling is well suited to the in-depth study of a cultural phenomenon’s specific aspect, a purposive sampling method was chosen for the semistructured interviews. Thus, participants were selected based on their capacity to provide information about their relationship with severe weather in storm-chasing tourism and to illustrate the diversity of perspectives held, rather than for statistical representativeness of the storm-chasing tourism population (Beaud 2009). To be eligible to participate, a person had to be or have been a storm-chasing tourist, guide, or storm-chasing company owner.
Participants were first recruited during storm-chasing tours with participating companies, as owners had granted the authorization to present the research to their guides and clients. Semistructured interviews were conducted with eight tourists and five guides. Four topics were addressed, namely, perception of severe weather, opinion about storm-chasing and storm-chasing tourism, personal experience with local communities during storm-chasing tours, and thoughts about the way locals perceive storm-chasing tourism (Table 2). All interviews were recorded after obtaining informed written consent. Pseudonyms were used throughout the research process to preserve the participants’ anonymity.
Recruitment for in-person interviews proved challenging: storm-chasing tours involved only a limited number of people and other potential participants were hard to reach, being scattered around the Great Plains. To supplement the dataset, the semistructured interview questionnaire was remodeled into an open-ended questionnaire. Sent by e-mail, it addressed the four topics with the same questions, with no limitation in the length of participants’ responses. In most cases, a few e-mails had to be exchanged to clarify and expand the answers given. The open-ended questionnaire was sent to 15 storm-chasing company owners, with 6 of them sending it back. This recruitment phase focused on storm-chasing company owners, as no participant from this category had been met. By the end of the data collection process, no new information was retrieved. Demographic information for study participants is presented in Table 3.
c. Internet data collection
A follow-up web search conducted in May 2009 found 8 new storm-chasing companies, bringing the total to 18. Using a reading grid, their websites were thoroughly examined to identify how they depicted severe weather phenomena and described their activities. The focus was on the type of images and vocabulary used.
d. Data analysis
Interviews were transcribed during fieldwork. Following an iterative research process, fieldwork notes, interview transcripts, response e-mails, and online content were preanalyzed by identifying salient themes and tendencies (Fortin 2010). Once all data were collected, a thematic analysis was conducted using qualitative data analysis software NVivo 7. Data were fragmented into small units of analysis and then coded into categories. Related coded material was then grouped according to highlighted themes. Data analysis revealed six depictions of severe weather and four rationales for storm-chasing tourism turning severe weather into a tourist attraction. As the analysis aimed at developing a broad picture of the range of perspectives held by participants, convergence and divergence across the category to which participants belonged were noted on an indicative basis only.
In the following analysis, quotes are identified by a participant category, while unidentified quotes in sections 5.a.2, 5.a.3. and 5.a.5 were taken from storm-chasing company websites.
a. Depictions of severe weather
To understand the interest in severe weather that spur people to embark on storm-chasing tourism, the analysis focused on the ways severe weather was depicted in participants’ discourse and on storm-chasing companies’ websites. Data revealed six nonmutually exclusive depictions of severe weather.
1) A passion
Nearly all participants expressed being passionate about severe weather, using words like “enjoyment,” “fascination,” and even “love” to describe their interest. Owners and guides said it was their long-standing passion for severe weather that drove them to storm-chasing tourism, rather than financial motives, as they claim they were not making money out of the activity. Tourists were usually interested in severe weather before they knew storm-chasing tourism existed. They said they regularly followed weather news on TV when at home, especially when tornado warnings had been issued. Most tourists came from states or countries where severe weather is not as common; they expressed that buying a storm-chasing tour to observe storms they cannot see at home was one of the best opportunities to realize their passion.
2) A spectacular sight
All participants put forward the impressive beauty of the storms they witnessed during a storm-chasing tour. Tourists talked about the “unbelievable cloud formations” they observed and how it was “incredible to see” tornadoes forming and touching the ground. Owners and guides converged in saying they were “pursuing severe weather with the intent of observing and taking pictures, videos [. . .] of localized severe weather events, specifically tornadoes and supercellular photogenic storms” (owner). No matter how many years they had been chasing, participants continued viewing storms as spectacular sights.
Vocabulary and images used on storm-chasing companies’ websites often highlighted the spectacular aspect of severe weather. Tourists were invited to witness “the most spectacular storms on Earth,” “the most awesome storms,” and “Mother Nature’s most awesome display of weather.” Common phrases describing atmospheric phenomena included “jaw-dropping storm structures”; “awesome shelf clouds”; “brilliant,” “dramatic,” and “dazzling” “lightning shows”; and “amazing” and “breathtaking beautiful” tornadoes. Websites displayed plentiful images of storms, especially of tornadoes and lightning (frequently enhanced through photo-editing software), which also contributed to solidifying the aesthetic and astounding appeal of severe weather.
3) A dangerous encounter
Severe weather’s inherent destructiveness was marketed as an incentive to buy a tour on the majority of storm-chasing companies’ websites. Tourists were prompted to embark on a storm-chasing tour to observe “nature’s more violent storms,” “capture awe inspiring shots of nature’s fury,” and experience “the thrill of the planet’s most intense thunderstorms.” According to these storm-chasing companies, encountering this powerful nature would give tourists “the ultimate adrenaline rush,” provide “an exhilarating, life-changing experience,” if not the “adventure of a lifetime.” Once in the field, the mandatory signing of a waiver reasserted the danger of severe weather, as did guides when reminding participants they were chasing powerful natural phenomena beyond their control. To be reassuring, every company indicated on its website that tourists’ safety was their “number one concern” and emphasized their guides had extensive experience in chasing severe weather.
The duality between the storms’ danger and the activity’s safety was part of most tourist testimonies. Tourists usually claimed they were looking for the excitement brought by pursuing potentially deadly severe weather phenomena, but they did not want to endanger themselves in doing so—a reason why they bought a tour instead of chasing storms by themselves. While they acknowledged severe weather’s innate danger, clients mentioned having strong confidence in their guides for dealing with severe weather. Participants from all categories argued that storm-chasing tours were safe if done properly, as long as no one took inordinate risks.
4) A rewarding challenge
All participants described severe weather phenomena as exacting targets, being hard to forecast, erratic, and overall, “a very uncommon thing” (owner). Owners and guides were prone to mention that storm-chasing tours depended on something highly unpredictable: “the weather naturally regulates where we go and what we see and do; [. . .] while an experienced severe weather forecaster and chaser can get the tour to the right place, no one there can control what it will do next” (guide). Tourists usually appreciated the difficulty level of pursuing weather—another reason why they bought a tour instead of chasing storms by themselves. Participants thus often presented severe weather phenomena as rewarding challenges: “just to even see one tornado, or be in an area where there’s one that’s quite an accomplishment there, you know, to be able to pinpoint an area and get to that area. When it actually happens that’s quite a feat in itself, that’s an accomplishment” (tourist). Because severe weather phenomena are somewhat rare and hard to catch, they were considered a privileged sight for those able to rightly anticipate and position themselves where storms would most likely develop.
5) A treat
Participants from all categories talked about the treat of experiencing severe weather through storm-chasing tourism. For most tourists, purchasing a storm-chasing tour was a well-thought-out decision, which meant saving up for it; observing severe weather at close range was a bucket list dream or a birthday present. Other tourists bought a storm-chasing tour to indulge themselves now that they had the money and time. This was the case for a couple living on the Canadian border that started storm chasing after retiring: “we sold our business, what are we going to do? Go to Disneyland? I mean, we were finally free so we could go to wherever we wanted. We wanted to try tornado chasing.” On storm-chasing companies’ websites, vocabulary describing severe weather in terms such as “something out of the ordinary” also contributed to reinforcing the idea it was a treat worth paying for. Storm-chasing tourism was stressed as the means for weather enthusiasts to fulfill their “dream” to “indulge in countless, magnificent visual and audible experiences.”
6) A reminder of humanity’s powerlessness
A few participants from all categories expressed feelings of powerlessness when experiencing severe weather. They said that the “tense moments of waiting” for a storm to create a funnel cloud reminded them “how powerless they were in this world” (guide), having no absolute control over it. Because of severe weather’s destructive potential and independence from human influence, those participants considered it was “much bigger, more awesome and greater” (tourist) than themselves. According to them, severe weather highlighted humanity’s vulnerability:
I’m insignificant when it comes to Mother Nature. It is a spiritual thing I do every year that is humbling. It’s humbling that no matter this world that we’re in, all the technology that we have and this whole kind of thing where humans feel you can just dictate this world as much as we want, we can’t. There’s so much more that’s bigger than us and for me it makes me feel good being reminded that we don’t dictate the universe, we’re just a part of it. (guide)
Some topics of discussion during storm-chasing tours fueled this perspective. Guides and tourists often recalled the number of people killed and the amount of damage caused by various tornado outbreaks. They also shared odd stories about tornadoes, based on things they had witnessed or heard. These anecdotes seemed to reinforce participants’ feelings of helplessness associated with severe weather.
b. Dealing with severe weather becoming a tourist attraction through storm-chasing tourism
The analysis of interview data showed that participants referred to one or more of four rationales to deal with severe weather becoming a tourist attraction through storm-chasing tourism.
Discussions about storm-chasing tourism turning severe weather into a tourist attraction mostly provoked the same spontaneous response with owners and guides: they trivialized the activity, pointing out that their interest in storms was part of human nature. A guide argued that “people are just naturally curious. It’s like a car accident, what do you do, you just stare at it. You’re ‘Oh! My goodness!’ You can’t turn your head. Thunderstorms are the same way.” These participants also understated storm-chasing tourism idiosyncrasy by emphasizing how “people have always chased weather, either for research or recreational intents” (owner). In this line of thought, storm-chasing tourism was presented as simply “filling a need” (owner) or as a win-win situation: “storm chasing was something that we were passionate about, so we saw an opportunity. We thought we could [. . .] financially, maybe fund our storm chasing vacations by helping other people out, by getting them out on the field” (owner). In describing storm-chasing tourism, owners and guides used generic terms, avoiding severe weather’s distinctive features. For example, an owner depicted storm-chasing tourism as a “legitimate business [in which] people are paying to see a side of the weather that they never get to see” (brackets in the original). Tourists rarely had this reasoning.
Most participants contended that storm-chasing tourism was blameless. The few tourists who expressed “a little bit of guilt wanting to see a tornado” because of its potentially dreadful consequences dismissed their feelings using the same justification as participants considering the activity entirely unproblematic.
First, storm-chasing tourism blamelessness was supported by claiming storms were chased with good intentions. Participants said they were not looking to enjoy themselves at the expense of others’ misfortune, nor did they wish anything bad to happen. A guide pointed out that “nobody’s cheering for a tornado to destroy somebody’s house, it’s just a matter of you observing storms that have the potential to cause destruction.” Many participants, from all categories, formulated an ideal storm-chasing scenario, where the tornado they were looking for would occur “out in the middle of nowhere where there are no houses and no people to be injured” (tourist).
Second, participants stated that most tornadoes did not affect anyone. A guide explained, “as you can see as we drive around the Midwest, it’s so big, there are so many parts we go where there aren’t people, the actual odds that a tornado hits people compared to not hitting people are slim. So usually they are in fields or stuff like that.” Implying only a few tornadoes hit populated areas served to minimize tornadoes’ threat for humans and, by extension, to discredit the idea that storm-chasing tourism goal was witnessing death and destruction.
Third, participants emphasized having no control over the storms’ occurrence, strength, and path. This argument seemed twofold: participants used it to dissociate themselves from severe weather’s undesirable effects, by noting that they could not be held accountable for something they had no power over, and to affirm that they were only taking advantage of what nature was offering. This point of view is well encapsulated in the following comment from a guide: “I guess it’s going to happen, there’s nothing we can do about it, but if we can get into a position where people can see nature at its peak, it’s something that I think is intriguing to people and, of course, it is intriguing to me.” Participants put forward that as severe weather phenomena would occur whether or not storm-chasing tours were in the area, they might as well be there to enjoy the sight. A guide concluded that after all, “tornadoes are there for us to use.”
Participants from all categories stated that storm-chasing tourism was useful in two sectors: local economy and public protection. First, most participants considered that storm-chasing tourism positively contributed to local economies through money spent for hotels, restaurants, and gas. Discussing storm-chasing tourism implications, a well-experienced guide said that “a positive impact that comes immediately to mind is the economic boom that storm-chasing is to the small towns that we pass through on our way to the storm. We buy gas and food and lodging from them during this peak season, and I’m sure the business owners all look forward to some bad weather in their area to help bring people in.” Participants said they believed that storm-chasing tours were locally appreciated because they mainly operated in May and June, a down period for tourism in the central states.
Second, several participants asserted that storm-chasing tours “served a good purpose” (tourist) because they could report meteorological observations to the National Weather Service and thus enable it to issue timely weather warnings. According to an owner, alerting communities was one of storm-chasing companies’ inherent responsibilities: “we cannot do anything about what the storms do, but we can be there to warn the public so they take cover ahead of the storm’s arrival. That is part of our job. We are not interested in seeing devastation, but it comes with the territory and we do everything possible to help protect people before it happens. Local people should be happy there are chasers like us around to warn them.” Both tourists and guides told stories of their enabling tornado warnings to be issued during a chase. Only one owner put the activity’s social relevance into perspective by pointing out that storm-chasing tours, far from offering a public service, were “just kind of there in the way,” for their own purposes.
4) Local acceptance
Unlike assertions previously introduced, perceptions of tornado-prone area inhabitants’ acceptance of storm-chasing tourism clearly differed between categories of participants. Owners and guides mostly stated that local inhabitants were either indifferent or positively inclined toward storm-chasing tourism. If a few guides raised the possibility of inhabitants seeing their activities as disrespectful, they believed that negative perceptions of storm-chasing tourism were based on a misunderstanding of the activity and the intentions of those engaged in it. In contrast, most tourists interviewed held the view that inhabitants of tornado-prone areas probably deemed storm-chasing tourism disrespectful or unsympathetic to their seasonal reality. A first-timer pointed out that the activity could be seen as “glorifying the destruction”: “you know people are all upset and we’re all coming through going ‘oh cool, look at the tornado that blew this person’s house apart,’ and the person is very emotionally upset about it.” A few tourists expressed feeling uncomfortable when meeting locals. One of them even said he walked away when locals approached because he was embarrassed by chasing storms for fun and was afraid his doings would be considered offensive. Interestingly, tourists’ perception that storm-chasing tourism could be ill accepted locally did not prevent them from buying a storm-chasing tour (and another). Among many examples, a tourist participating in a storm-chasing tour for the fourth year in a row said he believed that “[the locals] probably think of us being like morbid or insensitive to their loss, that’s probably the way that I would feel if I’d live here in a house a tornado ripped off” (brackets in the original).
The way severe weather is depicted and the rationales for its becoming a tourist attraction through storm-chasing tourism enhance a better understanding of the relationship between severe weather and people who participate in storm-chasing tours. If the study is exploratory and the sample size calls for caution in interpreting and generalizing results (Bernard 2011), an initial comprehension of the relationship with nature in storm-chasing tourism can nonetheless be drawn from the data collected. Severe weather appears to be sought for its power over humans while also being marketed as an ordinary commodity. Thus, it can be suggested that storm-chasing tourism brings together acceptance and exploitation of nature.
Participants’ experience of storm-chasing tourism is greatly centered on embracing the uncontrollability and powerfulness of severe weather. Being out of humanity’s control, storms command respect and are described as a source of awe. Severe weather also provokes feelings of powerlessness because it poses the threat of random destruction and death. Consistent with Walle’s (1997) observations about the insight provided by encountering an inscrutable nature, some participants talk about the way storm-chasing tourism reminds them of their own mortality. Additionally, storms’ danger and unpredictability is said to be thrilling and is presented as essential features in making a successful chase rewarding. Storm-chasing companies’ websites extensively market the power of nature over humanity as an incentive for participating in the activity. Studies on adventure tourism show that tourists are attracted to other nature-based activities for similar reasons (e.g., Weber 2001) and, as exemplified by many storm-chasing tourists, that they are often in the paradoxical position of wanting a thrilling experience without being subjected to actual risk (Cater 2006).
It can be argued that storm-chasing tourism participants accepting nature’s superior force and putting themselves at its mercy is no inconsequential act and serves at least two purposes. First, it allows them to disengage from less pleasing aspects of the activity. Participants stress that they are not causing severe weather: they are chasing it with good intentions, hoping for the best scenario to unfold. Emphasizing that no one can be held accountable for storms’ negative impacts helps dispel the idea that storm-chasing tourism is disrespectful of the reality of inhabitants in tornado-prone areas. The argument is sometimes pushed further by participants contending that storm-chasing tourism is beneficial for communities, insofar as it can warn them of upcoming dangerous natural phenomena. On this issue, it should be noted that due to the large number of storm chasers around severe storms in the central states, tornadoes will most likely be reported even without the presence of storm-chasing companies. Second, stressing that storm-chasing tourism is dependent on highly unpredictable weather justifies the impossibility for companies to provide any guarantees regarding tourists experiencing severe weather or their safety during tours. Owners and guides claim they are doing their best, but they repeatedly remind tourists that they cannot promise any results, as nature is beyond their control.
On a more global level, storm-chasing tourism revolves around selling severe weather, labeled a “must-see spectacle,” as a tourist attraction. Most participants feel warranted to do so: they legitimize their actions by suggesting storm-chasing tourism is based on supply and demand, and they are simply taking advantage of what nature freely provides. The passion for severe weather, a “natural interest” rooted in history, is presented as a business opportunity to seize, even by owners claiming making no profit out of the activity and emphasizing a win-win operation rather than a moneymaking enterprise. Conveniently stripped of its peculiarities, severe weather is hence treated like any other commodity—albeit a luxury one, considering that participants qualify storm-chasing tours as “treats.”
In this context, it is not far-fetched to suggest that the framing of severe weather as a generic tourist attraction is entrenched in the perception that nature’s finality lies in being exploited by humans. Social science researchers have long shown the widespread commodification of nature in capitalist societies (e.g., Castree 2008a,b; Descola and Pálsson 1996) and the way tourism contributes to this process (e.g., Duffy 2008; King and Stewart 1996). Nature-based adventure tourism, in particular, is described as significantly participating to exploiting nature by promoting it both for the experiences it provides and for itself (Fritsch and Johannsen 2003). Directly embedded in this logic, storm-chasing tourism can be seen as offering a means for participants to indulge their “dream of mastery over the earth,” an attitude signaled by Bell and Lyall (2002, p. 22) for other adventure tourism activities. Indeed, in turning severe weather into a tourist attraction, the activity manages to benefit from natural phenomena otherwise seen as destructive and hazardous, and whose occurrence is uncontrollable, thus placing humanity in the strongest position. Incidentally, severe weather appears to be quite an advantageous tourism resource, for its renewability, inexhaustibility, and the lack of need to invest in upgrading the resource. To that extent, storm-chasing tourism can be seen as illustrating how far-reaching nature’s commodification process can be.
This exploratory study of storm-chasing tourism provides the first anthropological insight into one of its fundamental features: the relationship with severe weather embedded in the activity. Examining depictions of severe weather in participants’ discourse and storm-chasing companies’ websites showed the multiple and intersecting ways destructive meteorological phenomena can be perceived. Describing the various rationales used by tourists, guides, and owners to deal with storm-chasing tourism turning uncontrollable meteorological phenomena into a tourist attraction exposed the activity’s participation in nature’s commodification process. Overall, storm-chasing tourism seems to be underpinned by both the acceptance of nature as is and the exploitation of the interest it raises. This argument contributes to considerations of human–nature interactions in Western societies, an issue in which researchers have long been interested.
Because the results presented here are preliminary, they call to be deepened and better contextualized by further, more extensive research. Studies based on larger samples and encompassing the storm-chasing community as a whole would allow identifying the weight and distribution of diverging ideas, in addition to enabling the generalization of the results. Another avenue for research would be to gather knowledge about the locals’ perspectives on storm-chasing tourism and to observe how it may vary according to states, rural/urban areas, occupation, etc. In a context where dozens of chasers congregate around severe storms in the United States each tornado season, providing more comprehensive studies of this largely understudied activity represents a highly relevant endeavor.
I thank all participants for their generosity throughout the research process. I am grateful to Sabrina Doyon, Isabelle Lamontagne, and Alexandre Bourke for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this article, and to the reviewers who provided many relevant refinements to the manuscript. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (766-2009-4205) and Quebec’s Research Fund—Society and Culture (2009-2010/134145). It was approved by the Laval University Ethics Research Committee (2009-060/14-04-2009).