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Extreme weather events are an absolute must-see on television for millions of people

Extreme weather events are no longer a rarity. Hurricanes, storms and other severe weather phenomena seem to be knocking on our doors more frequently and more violently all over the world.

Surprising to some, this wild escalation of weather events has further increased public curiosity and led to a multitude of live stream footage of these incidents.

Platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Discord have become digital front-row seats to witnessing Mother Nature’s fury.

Motivation of observers of extreme weather conditions

In an unprecedented attempt to understand the underlying motivation of these viewers, a remarkable study was conducted at the University of Plymouth.

This study focused on viewers of live streams of three events – Hurricane Irma in 2017, Hurricane Ian in 2022, and storms Dudley, Eunice, and Franklin in 2022.

The study's exciting approach was to examine viewer comments. It found that people in disaster areas used these digital platforms to communicate about the official risk advisories they received – often raising the question of whether evacuation was even necessary.

Other viewers, however, were captivated by the live streams because of their previous connections to the affected regions.

These people felt an emotional connection and appreciated the opportunity to express their solidarity and send messages of hope to the areas affected by the storm.

The research published in the journal Environmental hazards was conducted by Dr Simon Dickinson, Lecturer in Geohazards and Risks in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth.

He and his team closely examined nine live streams of the hurricanes and storms from 2017 and 2022.

These streams contained a total of 65 hours of video footage and attracted the attention of over 1.8 million viewers worldwide.

“When dramatic things happen – whether it’s extreme weather events or tornadoes or volcanic eruptions – people flock to watch,” Dickinson notes.

This phenomenon, often dismissed as a form of Internet “gawkers,” turns out to have complex causes.

The appeal of live streaming lies in real-time interaction, allowing people near or far from the event to share experiences and reinforce their understanding of the severity of the event and the dangers.

The shared footage becomes a reference point and online meeting place, marking these digital spaces as communities of learning and emotional support.

Engagement and learning

During these live streams, over 14,300 comments were posted by 5,000 individual accounts, indicating above-average audience participation.

This level of interaction also underlines the importance of such live recordings for initiating an international dialogue on pressing issues.

In addition, many of these live streams used existing webcam channels to show the path of the hurricanes or storms.

Webcams on the beach or in the harbor as well as private security cameras or doorbell cameras become important sources of information at these events.

Insights from live streaming of extreme weather events

In addition to fostering a sense of community, these live streams also play an important educational role.

Dr Dickinson stressed the importance of informal discussions about natural hazards, noting that “while scientists are getting better at communicating risks, people are much more likely to discuss hazards in informal and relatively unmoderated settings.”

Dickinson explained that extreme weather events serve as catalysts for public engagement on environmental issues.

Moments of extreme weather are important because they focus people's attention and trigger discussions about hazards, how they work and their increasing impact on us in the future.

Dickinson concluded by describing them as “spaces of learning, community and emotional support in a world that can feel increasingly volatile.”

The weather events recorded in these streams encourage people to take a closer look at the hazards from a scientific perspective and thus develop an awareness of hazard risks.

Increase reach and interaction

The rise of advanced technologies and social media platforms has greatly improved the reach and interaction of live streams of extreme weather events.

Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras now offer unprecedented vantage points and can photograph disasters from the air.

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) enable immersive experiences that give the viewer the feeling of being in the middle of the storm.

Additionally, real-time chat features and geotagging enable greater audience interaction by allowing viewers to ask questions, share local experiences, and get tailored advice from experts and other viewers.

Technology, extreme weather and the future

In summary, this technological development increases engagement around weather and climate while enhancing the educational and community aspect of these live streams, making them essential tools for modern disaster response and awareness.

The study highlights the need to view these places not only as platforms for disaster voyeurism, but as crucial hubs for understanding dangerous events and their impacts in a world that is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

They serve as places for learning, community building, and emotional support, making them an essential part of our evolving digital landscape.

The full study was published in the journal Environmental hazards.

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