Eye on the Sky

Nature’s Ephemeral Vortex

The spin on waterspouts.

By Paul Wilkerson ~ Photos By Marta Morton, www.harbourclubvillas.com

Waterspouts have been occurring for as long as memories have been recorded. On August 19, 1896 a waterspout developed over Vineyard Sound near Cottage City, Massachusetts. While at the time, it was rare for these to be seen from land, especially in the Northeast, mariners often saw these twisting clouds over the open waters of the Atlantic. These sailors would return with their stories, and often regaled locals about their close encounters with this strange phenomenon.

Historical image of one of the first photos of a waterspout in Massachusetts.

Here we are, some 124 years later, and we remain just as fascinated with these meteorological wonders.  Waterspouts happen across the globe, with most occurring in tropical and sub-tropical locations. It is however, not out of the question to see waterspouts form over large lakes as well as in northern latitudes, such as off the coast of Maine and Massachusetts.

In the Turks & Caicos Islands, spotting waterspouts has been a bit more common over the last several years. It isn’t necessarily that they are occurring more frequently, but that with advances in technology, people can more readily can capture these events with their cell phones and transmit photos around the world in seconds.

Are waterspouts the same as tornadoes?  

We need to first take a look at how waterspouts form and how they relate to their more sinister cousins, tornadoes. Waterspouts form rather infrequently under general thunderstorms over the open ocean. They also occur under towering cumulus clouds and even form at times under fair weather cumulus. Waterspouts that form at the base of a thunderstorm tend to be stronger than those that develop under other forms of cumulus clouds.

In order to get waterspouts to form, there needs to be a clockwise turning of the winds in the atmosphere starting at the water surface. It is common to have winds out of the southeast at the surface in the Islands. Two hundred feet above the water, winds may be from the south. Four hundred feet above the water, winds could be from the southwest. It is this turning in the winds as you ascend into the atmosphere that causes a column of air to rotate. As this column of air rotates and contracts, speeds increase in response. 

The first indication of a waterspout may be the formation of a clockwise swirl on the water’s surface. Once the column of air begins to rotate faster, a spiraling spray ring may become noticeable as water is lifted off the surface and becomes airborne around the whirling vortex itself. As the vortex matures, moisture may condensate, causing cloud formation within the vortex and giving viewers a complete view of the rotating column of air from the base of the cloud all the way to the water. In some cases, the funnel may not fully condensate, leaving those watching only a view of the funnel at the water’s surface and directly at cloud level.

In the TCI, spotting waterspouts is a bit more common in recent years.

Waterspouts usually are not a long lasting event. They generally will dissipate after warm air is no longer being pulled into the vortex. This can be caused by rainfall cooling the air directly around the funnel or the inflow of cooler air in the area.

On occasion, if waterspouts form close enough to land, they can come ashore and are then called tornadoes. Conversely, tornadoes that move over water become waterspouts. Thankfully, waterspouts are not nearly as strong as their more formidable cousins that form frequently each year in the United States. The life cycle of a tornado almost always starts with a very strong thunderstorm and generally occurs over the central and southern plains of the United States. For tornadoes to occur, very strong upper level winds are necessary, along with a sharp drop in temperatures as you ascend in the atmosphere. When these ingredients come together, they can produce strong thunderstorms that sometimes produce tornadoes. Tornadoes are classified on the Enhanced Fujita scale with winds ranging from 65 MPH on the low end to more than 200 MPH on the high end.

Thankfully, tornadoes are extremely rare in the Islands. In general, the only time tornadoes occur in the Turks & Caicos is during hurricanes. Several tornadoes reportedly occurred during the thrashing Hurricane Irma inflicted on the country in 2017. Also, a rare tornado was observed at the Providenciales International Airport on April 8, 2011 that lasted ten minutes. It caused no damage but raised dust on the runway.

Are waterspouts dangerous?

Yes, waterspouts can be dangerous. While they are not as strong as tornadoes, wind speeds in waterspouts generally can reach as high as 67 MPH. (However, photogrammetry has theoretically determined wind speeds of 180 to 190 MPH occurring 10 meters [32.8 feet] from the center of the waterspouts.) Imagine you are on a fishing vessel on the ocean and you encounter one of these waterspouts. It would not be uncommon to be encountering winds of less than 10 MPH on the open ocean and suddenly find yourself encountering 40 to 50 MPH winds with a waterspout!

Marine vessels are at significant danger when encountering waterspouts. If you are a marine operator, it is always advisable to check the weather forecast for the day and be mindful of any clouds developing in the area. By keeping an eye on the skies, you can keep your vessel safely away from developing danger. As a sailor, if you find yourself staring at a waterspout in close proximity, you would do well to seek safe harbor. If that is not available, give the waterspout as wide of a bearth as possible, as their movement can be unpredictable. 

A common myth is that waterspouts will dissipate when encountering land. This is 100% NOT TRUE. Waterspouts do routinely come ashore, sometimes with disastrous results. Beachgoers marvel at the appearance of a waterspout and falsely assume that it won’t come near the shore and affect them. There are plenty of documented stories where people have been caught on the beach as these watery beasts start causing damage to waterfront homes, condominium complexes and the surrounding grounds.

If you find yourself on the beach and taking in the wonder of a waterspout, you need to be aware that you are likely at risk of injury should the waterspout transition to land. It is always best to exercise caution and take cover inside a building or other sturdy structure.Waterspouts that transition to land can pick up beach umbrellas, turning them into spears. They can pick up lounge chairs and turn them into blunt force objects that can severely injure people. They can also pick up sand and cause sandblast injuries to the eyes of folks caught too close by. When in doubt, seek a safe way out. It is important!

My family and I have not been privy to seeing a waterspout in the Turks & Caicos during our visits, but we have seen images of them from those who have photographed them. Waterspouts are one of the most spectacular visual displays Mother Nature offers. Respect this show of power and view them from a safe location to ensure your ability to enjoy all that the Turks & Caicos Islands have to offer, including the lovely weather.

(By the way, one thing you will NOT see in the TCI is a winter waterspout, also known as a snow devil or a snowspout. This is an extremely rare instance of a waterspout forming under the base of a snow squall. Very little is known about this phenomenon.)

Paul Wilkerson is an American meteorologist and tourist who frequents the Turks & Caicos Islands. Along with his wife and two daughters, the Wilkersons stay actively engaged with Islanders throughout the year with his Facebook page Turks and Caicos Islands Weather Info.

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