A changing profession: Social media's impact on storm chasing

July 7, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

Freddy McKinney Storm Chasing
Freddy McKinney chasing a tornado near Spalding, NE in a video uploaded to his YouTube channel (Photo courtesy of Freddy McKinney)

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Dozens of tornadoes have touched down in Nebraska this year, attracting storm chasers from the Cornhusker State and across the country.

And in the age of social media, many young chasers are moving to online platforms to share video and to grow their following.

One of those is 21-year-old Freddy McKinney from Rising City, Nebraska. McKinney has over 25,000 subscribers on YouTube and recently expanded his storm chasing content to TikTok. McKinney said he changes the style of his videos based on what online audiences want to see.

“People want something they can see and clearly say, that’s a tornado. I would say closer video definitely garners more views,” McKinney said.

McKinney's father, John, has a front row seat to his son's online success.

He says his Freddy's fascination with weather began when he was four years old. After reading meteorology books and studying radar equipment, they started going on storm chasing trips. John still joins him on these chasing trips, as Freddy hopes to make storm chasing content-creation his career.

“Getting that footage and being able to come back home, create a video, and put that up to social media, for me that’s another passion,” McKinney said.

Freddy chases 30 to 40 storms a year across the United States, mainly in the South and Midwest. In just a few years of creating videos for YouTube, he said he’s learned that more unique footage gets a greater response - meaning the closer, the better.

“You have to find something unique because a lot of people will take video of the same tornado,” McKinney said.

But not all are a fan of the focus on clicks.

The prevalence of social media in storm chasing has caused some long-time storm chasers to ask if newcomers are doing it for the right reasons.

Quincy Vagell is 36 and worked in weather broadcasting before going solo as a storm chaser. He said he provides a lot of his footage to local National Weather Service offices so they can measure the impact of storm systems. Instead of seeking out social media followers, Vagell prefers to focus on the scientific side of tornadoes, his storm photography, and becoming a better storm chaser.

“I want to see different storms in different areas. I don’t like things that are easy necessarily. I want to just keep growing my knowledge,” Vagell said.

Storm Chaser Quincy Vagell
Storm chaser Quincy Vagell poses in front of a cumulonimbus cloud (Photo courtesy of Quincy Vagell)

Jeff Piotrowski, a 40 year storm chasing veteran, has been featured on the Weather Channel and National Geographic. He said putting together the puzzle of a developing storm system keeps him interested in storm chasing, even after all these years.

“The key is putting all those pieces of the puzzle together, so at the end of the day, you get a clear picture of the threat and what’s going to happen,” Piotrowski said.

Both of these more experienced chasers say social media could be a negative influence for novice storm chasers who just want the clicks. Vagell said platforms like YouTube and TikTok emphasize creating a persona over scientific storm chasing.

“The people with personalities and the people that do extreme things, they seem to have more traction with that with things going viral,” Vagell said.

Vagell said he used to be much more active on social media, but now his philosophy for posting storm chasing content on social media is that less is more.

“People know when I post something, I’m right near the storm,” Vagell said.

Vagell, in his opinion, says social media creates an environment where young storm chasers may be pushed beyond their limits, putting themselves in danger.

“People think that if they don’t get that super close, super extreme footage, that it’s a loss,” Vagell said.

Piotrowski said he has seen many cases of people putting themselves in danger to get closer footage of a tornado.

“We’ve seen a lot of examples this year on social where people have taken extreme risk, unnecessary risk, to get pictures and video that weren’t necessary,” Piotrowski said.

Storm Chaser Jeff Piotrowski
Veteran storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski and his wife Kathryn (Photo courtesy of Jeff Piotrowski)

While every new generation of storm chasers will have their own style, Piotrowski said safety should always be the first priority.

“There’s always tomorrow. If you go slow and easy and steady at it, and stay safe and smart, you’ll be around tomorrow to chase another storm,” Piotrowski said.

Safety has also become a greater concern for Vagell, especially as the number of storm chasers has grown. He said rural roads are now packed with vehicles following the same storm.

“I would be at a storm ten years ago and there would be maybe a handful of chasers, and now at the same storm I have a hundred storm chasers,” Vagell said.

He attributes the growing popularity of storm chasing to a combination of social media prevalence and boredom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think during COVID a lot of people found time to travel and get into storm chasing, it’s almost been inherited from that point,” Vagell said.

Freddy McKinney said he has also encountered more storm chasers in the last few years. He said it’s because smartphones have made storm chasing a more affordable hobby for many.

“You have your radar on there, you have your camera on there, you have your maps on there. That didn’t use to be the case,” McKinney said.

But with the explosion in popularity also comes a greater sense of community. According to Vagell, storm chasers will often take over communities while on watch for a storm, turning a gas station or restaurant into a storm chaser hang out.

“You go to any gas station near the target and there’s gonna be just tons of storm chasing vehicles and people standing outside, looking up at the sky. It’s kind of neat to see but it can also cause a lot of traffic,” Vagell said.

McKinney said when he and his father are chasing a storm, other chasers will often recognize him from his YouTube content, which was the case at a McDonald’s during a recent chase in Texas.

“I probably spent 30 or 40 minutes in that McDonald’s just talking to other chasers, what their experiences are, or what they’ve seen, or how their year has been,” McKinney said.

Despite his dream to become a YouTube star, McKinney said his passion for storm chasing runs deeper than gaining followers.

“I just like being there, in the presence of a storm and seeing it with my own eyes,” McKinney said.

He said regardless of age or background, all storm chasers are united by their passion for observing severe weather.