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Waterspouts: Weather phenomena on land and sea

waterspout photo

Though spindly waterspouts are not visible, this is a classic cloud type seen June 30 for fair-weather waterspout formations. Photo by Summer Brown

Editor’s note: With the stormy weather Monday night (Aug. 8), islanders received an alert around 8 p.m. to beware of a tornadic waterspout heading for the south end of the island. Although the skies remained dark and stormy, no waterspout touched down, according to Mark Justice, the medical responder for the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department. “The heat of the island acts like a fence and stops them,” he said while a few folks gathered on the Community Square docks to look at the dark clouds moving from south to north. 

Updated: Aug. 9, 2016

By D. Creeksong

Visiting photographer Summer Brown scanned the ocean for a waterspout close enough to shoot–having no idea she’d be attempting to outrun it minutes later.

It was the afternoon of June 30 at the NPS campground.

A large, black-bottomed cluster of blossoming cumulus clouds was heading down the Atlantic side of the island. It had already produced several spindly spouts some distance away.

Brown’s brother pointed to a spot offshore and asked what was happening to the water.

“It was another spout!” she said. “Water was whipping up into the air in a circular pattern with no column.”

Fascinated, she snapped off two shots before they noticed the spout was heading straight for them.

“We started to back away but weren’t fast enough,” Brown said. “We hunkered down at the base of the dunes and it passed right through and over us giving a good sandblasting. I ran to the top and watched it cross the campground, flinging lightweight objects into the air and filling a few unlucky campers’ tents with sand.

“Minutes later, I saw a stronger waterspout form to the south of us and snapped a shot as it moved on land.” 

She was perplexed by these encounters.

waterspout with spray circled

A stage-three spray ring. this is the ‘funnel-less’ waterspout that chased Summer Brown and her brother to the dunes then went over them and across the NPS campground to Highway 12 before dissipating. Photo by Summer Brown

“I was amazed at how quickly the one waterspout formed with no hint of rain, wind or lightning,” she said. “After living in Texas and experiencing tornadic weather, I assumed severe storm conditions were necessary for formation.”

Their attempted dash to safety happened only a few minutes after first spotting this fair-weather, but nonetheless dangerous, spout.

Brown is not alone in her confusion about waterspout behavior, and misinformation abounds.

Wade Szilagyi, director of the International Centre for Waterspout Research (ICWR), is working to change that and has developed techniques for early prediction. Szilagyi also warns that waterspouts should not be taken lightly.

A waterspout forms farther south of where Summer Brown encountered the first one. Photo by Summer Brown

A waterspout forms farther south of where Summer Brown encountered the first one. Photo by Summer Brown

No matter how diminutive and graceful some of them may appear, waterspouts are capable of capsizing small boats, tossing small aircraft about, toppling trees, and, when they come ashore, seriously injuring people with flying debris and sand.

And that is just the fair-weather type. The rarer–but far more dangerous–tornadic waterspout is no stranger to Ocracoke locals.  Our own Molasses Creek band tells this tale:

After finishing practice one evening during a heavy thunderstorm in September 1998, the entire house began vibrating violently.

“It only lasted about 10 to 15 seconds,” recalled Fiddler Dave Tweedie.

When they looked outside, it was near pitch black and nothing seemed amiss. But a vacationer in the house behind them–as related by other band members Kitty and Gary Mitchell–told a different story.

While on his back porch overlooking the sound, the vacationer watched, horrified, as electrical sparks started flying from a house being lifted straight up into the air.  His factual account ended there, however, as he thought it wisest to dive through an open window back into his rental.

The next day found an entire house missing (thankfully empty at the time) just two doors down from where Molasses Creek had been practicing.  Yet a small house that stood between had gone untouched–with an empty Styrofoam cup still sitting on the deck railing.

Island residents and visitors can learn to identify both fair weather and tornadic waterspouts for their own safety. 

Tornadic waterspouts are tornadoes created over water, or tornadoes that have left land and gone into water. Bred in severe thunderstorms, they form from the cloud downwards.

Fair weather waterspouts form from the water up, connecting to developing cumulus clouds with flat, black bottoms. Not associated with a frontal boundary, these clouds typically contain little or no rain, wind or lightning.

They are also identified with a five-stage life cycle: 1.) dark spot appears on the water; 2.) spiral patterns form around it; 3.)  sea spray ring develops; 4.) visible funnel may form; 5.) loss of warm air inflow starts to decay the spout.

Although many sources claim that fair weather spouts move “little or not at all,” that was not Brown’s experience.

A part time geology/environmental science teacher at the University of Kentucky, she added, “I’m looking forward to incorporating my photos and first-hand encounter into weather and climate lectures.”
To assist the ICWR with the ongoing development of their prediction model, they ask that all waterspout sightings be reported immediately on their website www.icwr.ca, Twitter or Facebook page.  

To view more of Summer Brown’s photos, visit www.summerjasminephoto.com/