The surprising reasons people watch disasters unfold

Extreme weather events are increasingly easy to watch online, as they get more frequent and easier to record.

Livestreams of disasters – taken by everything from port condition webcams to people’s personal doorbells – can draw in thousands of online viewers.

Why do people watch these livestreams? A new study suggests it’s not just morbid fascination.

“When dramatic things happen – whether that relates to extreme weather or events like tornados or volcanoes erupting – people flock to watch,” explains Dr Simon Dickinson, a lecturer at the University of Plymouth, UK, who has just published a paper on disaster viewing in Environmental Hazards.

“You might assume that this is just a form of online ‘rubber-necking’, and that people are naturally drawn to spectacular sights.

“However, this study has shown that the drivers to watch extreme weather footage are more complex.”

Dickinson analysed the comments on livestreams of two category 5 events which hit the Caribbean and the US (Hurricane Irma, 2017 and Hurricane Ian, 2022)  and the 2022 UK storms.

This involved looking at 65 hours of footage from 9 livestreams, which were watched by a total of 1.8 million people. More than 5,000 viewers left 14,300 comments.

According to Dickinson, many of the comments were discussing official government advice. Others were left by people who had a personal connection to the area, and some emphasised hope and solidarity.

For instance, one commenter said that a beach livestream during Hurricane Ian was “where [they] got asked by [their] hubby to marry him! There’s a lovely restaurant owner who [they] hope are okay!”

Other commenters spent hours in front of streams, noting and disputing tiny changes. One example interaction Dickinson reports from Hurricane Ian is: “tree on the left definitely moving more now” and “you’re wrong. Tree moving same amount. Stop creating panic”.

“Live-streams provide the opportunity for people in, close to, and far away from the event to interact in real time,” says Dickinson.

“The footage becomes a marker that people use to sense-check their understandings of how significant the event is, how hazards work, and as an online gathering point to share experiences of similar events. It is a fascinating insight into human behaviour that has previously been unexplored.”

Dickinson says that viewers are often keen to know more about the hazards from expert sources.

“Although scientists are getting better at communicating risk, people are far more likely to discuss hazards in informal and relatively unmoderated settings,” he says.

“Moments of extreme weather are important because they focus people’s attention and generate discussion about hazards, how they work, and how they will increasingly affect us in future.

“New digital practices – such as live-streaming – are thus important for us to understand because they’re not just spaces of disaster voyeurism. Rather, they’re spaces of learning, community and emotional support in a world that can feel increasingly volatile.”

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