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What Causes Waterspouts?

Vana LesLee Photography

People in the Twin Ports see a lot of crazy weather conditions through the seasons. Usually waterspouts aren’t one of those things. With today’s occurrence of a waterspout near Park Point on Lake Superior, social media is abuzz with questions like “What is a waterspout?” or “Why do waterspouts occur?” Here’s a quick guide into those questions and more.

Visually speaking, a waterspout looks like a tornado on water. While the visible part of tornadoes over land are made up of dirt and debris, the visible aspects of a waterspout are made up of the water they occur over. While they look and act similarly, what causes them can be different that what causes a land tornado.

Waterspouts come in two different types: fair weather, and tornadic waterspouts. As the name suggests, fair weather waterspouts are not severe and are not caused by thunderstorm activity. Fair weather waterspouts form at the water’s surface due to light, circulating wind conditions. This type of waterspout usually doesn’t extend from the water surface to the clouds, and they generally don’t move very much before disappearing. While this type of waterspout is an interesting spectacle, they tend to be much weaker than a tornado.

Tornadic waterspouts, basically speaking, are tornadoes on water. This type of waterspout forms with a severe thunderstorm, extending from the sky downward toward the water surface, similar to it’s land relative. This type of waterspout has the potential to be far more violent and severe than the fair weather type, and can move onto land along with the storm causing it.

The National Weather Service is looking into the waterspout. At the time of the waterspout, there was a thunderstorm moving through the area. Also, the gusty wind conditions along the shoreline could be the cause of the spectacle. The NWS does have a small craft advisory active along the shoreline due to gusty wind and large waves.

One of the reports states that there was a funnel cloud that passed over Barker’s Island. If this is true, this may have been of the tornadic variety.

UPDATE: The National Weather Service has preliminarily confirmed there was a funnel cloud that dissipated after passing over Barker’s Island at 11:20 this morning. The report comes from a trained spotter in the area.

Photo Credit: Vana LesLee Photography


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