Natural phenomena are tremendous both as beautiful and horrifying events. There are plenty of such events which occur every day in different corners of the world, treating us with mind-blowing scenes. The list of such phenomena is, of course, a very long one. Waterspouts, also sometimes known as the sea tornado, is one of such prominent natural events around the globe.
Usually occurs over warm tropical ocean waters, waterspouts often appears as a funnel-shaped cloud that is descending from the stormy sky. As scientists define, a waterspout is a rotating column of water that contains an intense vortex.
In spite of being called as tornadoes over water for a long period, sometimes water spouts appear as nearly invisible, like a spiral of wind moving along the sea surface. Though closely connected to phenomena such as tornadoes, firestorms, and whirlwinds, waterspouts are quite common and rather non-destructive considering the frequency of their occurrences.
Water Spouts can occur at any place all over the coastal regions of the world. There is no particular place, as per scientific explanation, where they are more likely to happen. However, despite that fact, there are regions in the world that witness water spouts more often than others. The Florida Keys and the waters of the Great Lakes are the most common places where waterspouts have been spotted.
They have occurred for centuries now but still, continue to intrigue anyone who chances upon them. Here is an overview of some important facts about waterspouts.
1. The Vertical Funnel
As mentioned, waterspouts are unique structures formed over the sea or ocean surface, particularly in warm tropical regions. Reason for these water spouts at sea is believed to a be vertical wind shear- a wind force that changes direction as it goes higher. This leads to the formation of a vertical funnel which we call a water spout. A typical waterspout at sea is like a narrow tornado that can range a few feet in width and a few feet to several hundred feet in height. They are often very narrow water structures but not necessarily. Very large waterspouts have been reported on different occasions.
The life cycle of waterspouts includes five stages. Initially, a dark spot, a light-coloured disk, appears on the surface of the water. Following the formation of the disks, a spiral pattern surfaces from the water surface and leads to the formation of a spray ring, called a cascade, around the dark spot. As it matures, the waterspouts can be visible on the surface of the water, moving upward. The waterspout decays as the inflow of warm air into the vortex weakens eventually.
2. Tornadic and Non-tornadicWater Spouts
There are two types of waterspouts- tornadic and non-tornadic, also known as fair weather, waterspouts. As the name suggests, tornadic waterspout usually develops over water, or form over land and move to water. It resembles their land counterparts in terms of formation and destruction capacity and is also rarer. Similarly, a tornadic waterspout is associated with thunderstorms and also comes with high winds, large hail, and frequent lightning.
On the other hand, fair weather waterspout needs both warm water and cumulus cloud formations to develop and occur along the dark flat base of a line of growing cumulus clouds. Unlike tornadic waterspouts, fair weather waterspouts form on the surface of the water while later works its way upward. These types of waterspouts can be spotted more often on the sea and usually move very little.
3. It’s Not Seawater inside a Waterspouts
For a very long time, scientists were of the opinion that the revolving mass of water in a waterspout was in fact water of the sea. However, later studies have revealed that what appears to be sea water floating up in air menacingly is actually spray of cloud water. The clouds gather and condensation of water leads to the formation of a swirling mass of water droplets.
4. Wind Velocity
An average waterspout would be around 50 meters in diameter and its associated wind will move at an average speed of about 50 miles an hour. That could account for their low destructive capacity since the wind velocity is not high enough to gather too much mass. But sometimes the wind velocity can go as high as 150 miles an hour, while the largest waterspouts can be around 100 meters in diameter. A waterspout is more than likely to stay on the water and be typically harmless to seafarers. However, sometimes a waterspout may transcend over to land and turn into a full-scale tornado that can run havoc on lives and property.
5. Sea Water and Parent Cloud
Even though the wind velocity and force of waterspouts is generally regarded as rather bleak to allow many carriages, sometimes the whirlwind occurs with such force that the water from the sea maybe lifted even up to the parent cloud.
As such, all the associated salts, fish and other sea flora and fauna may be carried up to the cloud and later fall as every kind of rain- fish rain, salt water rain, rain with bits of seaweed etc. This would be a baffling scene for anyone of witnesses it but little they know, it has such a simple scientific explanation to it.
6. The Earliest Waterspouts
However the scientific explanation of the waterspouts unravelled recently, waterspouts have been occurring since ancient times, mostly considered as subjects of mystery and fear etc. As per the available documents, the earliest record of a waterspout on sea goes as back as 1456 when a whirlwind of water was spotted on the sea near Ancona in Italy. On August 24 of this year, a waterspout was spotted ashore near Ancona and travelled from east to west before reaching the waters near Pisa. According to the record, the waterspout was around 2 miles wide in size.
The records of disastrous waterspouts that led to casualties are less in number. One of the earliest records of a waterspout that caused damages is the Malta tornado occurred in 1555 at the Grand Harbour of Valletta. This deadly waterspout claimed the lives of hundreds of people while also sunk four galleys and a number of boats.
7. Can Be Destructive as Well
Even though a water spout on the sea is generally considered non-destructive, it has an immense potential of being destructive, causing damage and causalities. Like a tornado, the most destructive aspect of a waterspout is its ability to carry anything that comes in its way with it. Sand particles, small floating structures, humans, animals and sometimes even small boats may be carried along with a water spout. Considering its potential to be dangerous, the US’ National Weather Service issues a tornado warning in case a waterspout moves onshore. Apart from posing threat to boats, ships and people onshore, waterspouts also put aircraft in danger as the helicopters flying near waterspouts put a chance to be thrown off-course by its force.
Difficult to Predict
Though usually occurs in warm and humid areas, the accurate forecast of waterspouts would be a slim chance, owing to the unpredictable nature of the events. However, with enough experience, many seafarers have learned the tricks to predict one. Dark spots- the first stage of a waterspout lifecycle-in water or sudden shifts in the wind are enough to warn them of an upcoming water spout. The US National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts waterspouts analyzing the large, cool air masses spread over the waters, especially during the late summer and fall. The meteorologists examine the temperature of water and air, moisture, and also the speed of the wind to determine the possibility of waterspouts.
An amazing fact about waterspouts is that they continue to be mysterious despite extensive studies on them. Their unique nature continues to baffle world altogether.
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