Weirdest Weather: Waterspouts

Haboobs? Volcano lightning? Keep your hat on, the sky isn't falling just yet.

Jul 5, 2013
Outside Magazine

   Photo: burax/Flickr

A waterspout in the Gulf of Mexico, off Orange Beach, Alabama, July 2010.

WHAT: An up to 8,000-foot-high swirling column of air – sometimes containing a visible funnel cloud – that can move at 30 knots and create winds of 200 miles per hour.

WHERE: The Great Lakes, the Mediterranean, and most tropical and subtropical shallow seas. The Florida Keys average 100 to 500 spouts a summer.

HOW: As warm, moist air rises to form low-lying cumulus clouds over large bodies of water, winds create a swirling vortex that can send a column of condensation up into the clouds’ base.

SUPERFREAKS: Waterspouts have knocked down telephone poles and lifted Cadillacs. They also could explain accounts of frogs and fish falling from the sky: as water gets sucked into an updraft, critters can be, too. Citizens of the Australian town of Lajamanu – 326 miles from the nearest river – say it has happened at least three times in the past 40 years.

THE FORECAST: “If the models are right about rising sea-surface temperatures over the next century, we may see an increase in waterspout activity in the Florida Keys and tropical island nations,” says former NOAA scientist Joseph Golden.