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A waterspout near Florida. The two flares with smoke trails near the bottom of the photograph are for indicating wind direction and general speed. Trombe.jpg
A waterspout near Florida. The two flares with smoke trails near the bottom of the photograph are for indicating wind direction and general speed.

A waterspout is an intense columnar vortex (usually appearing as a funnel-shaped cloud) that occurs over a body of water. [1] Some are connected to a cumulus congestus cloud, some to a cumuliform cloud and some to a cumulonimbus cloud. [2] In the common form, it is a non-supercell tornado over water having a five-part life cycle: formation of a dark spot on the water surface, spiral pattern on the water surface, formation of a spray ring, development of the visible condensation funnel, and ultimately, decay. [2] [3] [4]


Most waterspouts do not suck up water; they are small and weak rotating columns of air over water. [2] [5] Although they are most often weaker than their land counterparts, stronger versions spawned by mesocyclones do occur. [6] [7]

While waterspouts form mostly in tropical and subtropical areas, [2] other areas also report waterspouts, including Europe, Western Asia (the Middle East), [8] Australia, New Zealand, the Great Lakes, Antarctica, [9] [10] and on rare occasions, the Great Salt Lake, [11] among others. Some are also found on the East Coast of the United States, and the coast of California. [1] Although rare, waterspouts have been observed in connection with lake-effect snow precipitation bands.



Though the majority of waterspouts occur in the tropics, they can seasonally appear in temperate areas throughout the world, and are common across the western coast of Europe as well as the British Isles and several areas of the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea. They are not restricted to saltwater; many have been reported on lakes and rivers including the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. [12] Waterspouts are fairly common on the Great Lakes during late summer and early fall, with a record 66+ waterspouts reported over just a seven-day period in 2003. [13]

They are more frequent within 100 kilometers (60 mi) from the coast than farther out at sea. Waterspouts are common along the southeast U.S. coast, especially off southern Florida and the Keys and can happen over seas, bays, and lakes worldwide. Approximately 160 waterspouts are currently reported per year across Europe, with the Netherlands reporting the most at 60, followed by Spain and Italy at 25, and the United Kingdom at 15. They are most common in late summer. In the Northern Hemisphere, September has been pinpointed as the prime month of formation. [14] Waterspouts are also frequently observed off the east coast of Australia, with several being described by Joseph Banks during the voyage of the Endeavour in 1770. [15] [16] [17]


Waterspouts exist on a microscale, where their environment is less than two kilometers in width. The cloud from which they develop can be as innocuous as a moderate cumulus, or as great as a supercell. While some waterspouts are strong and tornadic in nature, most are much weaker and caused by different atmospheric dynamics. They normally develop in moisture-laden environments as their parent clouds are in the process of development, and it is theorized they spin as they move up the surface boundary from the horizontal shear near the surface, and then stretch upwards to the cloud once the low level shear vortex aligns with a developing cumulus cloud or thunderstorm. Some weak tornadoes, known as landspouts, have been shown to develop in a similar manner. [18]

More than one waterspout can occur in the same vicinity at the same time. In 2012, as many as nine simultaneous waterspouts were reported on Lake Michigan in the United States. [9] In May 2021, at least five simultaneous waterspouts were filmed near Taree, off the northern coast of New South Wales, Australia. [15]



Non-tornadic waterspouts seen from the beach at Kijkduin near The Hague, the Netherlands on 27 August 2006. Three waterspouts Kijkduin.jpg
Non-tornadic waterspouts seen from the beach at Kijkduin near The Hague, the Netherlands on 27 August 2006.

Waterspouts that are not associated with a rotating updraft of a supercell thunderstorm are known as "non-tornadic" or "fair-weather waterspouts", and are by far the most common type. Fair-weather waterspouts occur in coastal waters and are associated with dark, flat-bottomed, developing convective cumulus towers. Waterspouts of this type rapidly develop and dissipate, having life cycles shorter than 20 minutes. [18] They usually rate no higher than EF0 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, generally exhibiting winds of less than 30 m/s (67 mph; 108 km/h). [19]

They are most frequently seen in tropical and sub-tropical climates, with upwards of 400 per year observed in the Florida Keys. [20] They typically move slowly, if at all, since the cloud to which they are attached is horizontally static, being formed by vertical convective action instead of the subduction/adduction interaction between colliding fronts. [20] [21] Fair-weather waterspouts are very similar in both appearance and mechanics to landspouts, and largely behave as such if they move ashore. [20]

5 stages of a fair weather waterspout lifecycle.

There are five stages to a fair weather waterspout life cycle. Initially, a prominent circular, light-colored disk appears on the surface of the water, surrounded by a larger dark area of indeterminate shape. After the formation of these colored disks on the water, a pattern of light and dark-colored spiral bands develop from the dark spot on the water surface. Then, a dense annulus of sea spray, called a cascade, appears around the dark spot with what appears to be an eye. Eventually, the waterspout becomes a visible funnel from the water surface to the overhead cloud. The spray vortex can rise to a height of several hundred feet or more and often creates a visible wake and an associated wave train as it moves. Eventually, the funnel and spray vortex begin to dissipate as the inflow of warm air into the vortex weakens, ending the waterspout's life cycle. [21]


Tornadic waterspout on 15 July 2005 off the coast of Punta Gorda, Florida, caused by a severe thunderstorm. Punta Gorda waterspout.jpg
Tornadic waterspout on 15 July 2005 off the coast of Punta Gorda, Florida, caused by a severe thunderstorm.

"Tornadic waterspouts", also accurately referred to as "tornadoes over water", are formed from mesocyclones in a manner essentially identical to land-based tornadoes in connection with severe thunderstorms, but simply occurring over water. [22] A tornado which travels from land to a body of water would also be considered a tornadic waterspout. [23] Since the vast majority of mesocyclonic thunderstorms occur in land-locked areas of the United States, true tornadic waterspouts are correspondingly rarer than their fair-weather counterparts in that country. However, in some areas, such as the Adriatic, Aegean and Ionian seas, [24] tornadic waterspouts can make up half of the total number. [25]


A winter waterspout, also known as an icespout, an ice devil, or a snowspout, is a rare instance of a waterspout forming under the base of a snow squall. [26] The term "winter waterspout" is used to differentiate between the common warm season waterspout and this rare winter season event. There are a couple of critical criteria for the formation of a winter waterspout. Very cold temperatures need to be present over a body of water warm enough to produce fog resembling steam above the water's surface. Like the more efficient lake-effect snow events, winds focusing down the axis of long lakes enhance wind convergence and likely enhance their development. [27]

The terms "snow devil" and "snownado" describe a different phenomena, a snow vortex close to the surface with no parent cloud, similar to a dust devils. [28]



Waterspout filmed off Anglesey, Wales, on 15 November 2010 by an RAF Search and Rescue crew Giant Waterspout Filmed by RAF Search and Rescue Crew MOD 45152038.jpg
Waterspout filmed off Anglesey, Wales, on 15 November 2010 by an RAF Search and Rescue crew

Waterspouts have long been recognized as serious marine hazards. Stronger waterspouts pose threats to watercraft, aircraft and people. [29] It is recommended to keep a considerable distance from these phenomena, and to always be on alert through weather reports. The United States National Weather Service will often issue special marine warnings when waterspouts are likely or have been sighted over coastal waters, or tornado warnings when waterspouts are expected to move onshore. [30]

Incidents of waterspouts causing severe damage and casualties are rare. However, there have been several notable examples. The Malta tornado in 1555 was the earliest record of a deadly waterspout. It struck the Grand Harbour of Valletta, sinking four galleys and numerous boats and claiming hundreds of lives. [31] The 1851 Sicily tornadoes were twin waterspouts that made landfall in western Sicily, ravaging the coast and countryside before ultimately dissipating back again over the sea.


Depending on how fast the winds from a waterspout are whipping, anything that is within about 90 cm (1 yard) of the surface of the water, including fish of different sizes, frogs, and even turtles, can be lifted into the air. [32] A waterspout can sometimes suck small animals such as fish out of the water and all the way up into the cloud. Even if the waterspout stops spinning, the fish in the cloud can be carried over land, buffeted up and down and around with the cloud's winds until its currents no longer keep the flying fish in the atmosphere. Depending on how far they travel and how high they are taken into the atmosphere, the fish are sometimes dead by the time they rain down. People as far as 160 km (100 miles) inland have experienced raining fish. [32] Fish can also be sucked up from rivers, but raining fish is not a common weather phenomenon. [32]

Research and forecasting

The Szilagyi Waterspout Index (SWI), developed by Canadian meteorologist Wade Szilagyi, is used to predict conditions favorable for waterspout development. The SWI ranges from −10 to +10, where values greater than or equal to zero represent conditions favorable for waterspout development. [33] [34]

Illustration from the book The Philosophy of Storms, published in 1841 The-philosophy-of-storms-1841-James-Pollard-Espy.jpg
Illustration from the book The Philosophy of Storms, published in 1841

The International Centre for Waterspout Research (ICWR) is a non-governmental organization of individuals from around the world who are interested in the field of waterspouts from a research, operational and safety perspective. [35] Originally a forum for researchers and meteorologists, the ICWR has expanded interest and contribution from storm chasers, the media, the marine and aviation communities and from private individuals.


There was a commonly held belief among sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries that shooting a broadside cannon volley dispersed waterspouts. [36] [37] [38] Among others, Captain Vladimir Bronevskiy claims that it was a successful technique, having been an eyewitness to the dissipation of a phenomenon in the Adriatic while a midshipman aboard the frigate Venus during the 1806 campaign under Admiral Senyavin. [39]

A waterspout has been proposed as a reason for the abandonment of the Mary Celeste . [40]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tornado</span> Violently rotating column of air in contact with both the Earths surface and a cumulonimbus cloud

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the Earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. It is often referred to as a twister, whirlwind or cyclone, although the word cyclone is used in meteorology to name a weather system with a low-pressure area in the center around which, from an observer looking down toward the surface of the Earth, winds blow counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern. Tornadoes come in many shapes and sizes, and they are often visible in the form of a condensation funnel originating from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud, with a cloud of rotating debris and dust beneath it. Most tornadoes have wind speeds less than 180 kilometers per hour, are about 80 meters across, and travel several kilometers before dissipating. The most extreme tornadoes can attain wind speeds of more than 480 kilometers per hour (300 mph), are more than 3 kilometers (2 mi) in diameter, and stay on the ground for more than 100 km.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cyclone</span> Large scale air mass that rotates around a strong center of low pressure

In meteorology, a cyclone is a large air mass that rotates around a strong center of low atmospheric pressure, counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere as viewed from above. Cyclones are characterized by inward-spiraling winds that rotate about a zone of low pressure. The largest low-pressure systems are polar vortices and extratropical cyclones of the largest scale. Warm-core cyclones such as tropical cyclones and subtropical cyclones also lie within the synoptic scale. Mesocyclones, tornadoes, and dust devils lie within smaller mesoscale. Upper level cyclones can exist without the presence of a surface low, and can pinch off from the base of the tropical upper tropospheric trough during the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere. Cyclones have also been seen on extraterrestrial planets, such as Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune. Cyclogenesis is the process of cyclone formation and intensification. Extratropical cyclones begin as waves in large regions of enhanced mid-latitude temperature contrasts called baroclinic zones. These zones contract and form weather fronts as the cyclonic circulation closes and intensifies. Later in their life cycle, extratropical cyclones occlude as cold air masses undercut the warmer air and become cold core systems. A cyclone's track is guided over the course of its 2 to 6 day life cycle by the steering flow of the subtropical jet stream.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cumulus cloud</span> Genus of clouds, low-level cloud

Cumulus clouds are clouds which have flat bases and are often described as "puffy", "cotton-like" or "fluffy" in appearance. Their name derives from the Latin cumulo-, meaning heap or pile. Cumulus clouds are low-level clouds, generally less than 2,000 m (6,600 ft) in altitude unless they are the more vertical cumulus congestus form. Cumulus clouds may appear by themselves, in lines, or in clusters.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thunderstorm</span> Type of weather with lightning and thunder

A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is a storm characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere, known as thunder. Relatively weak thunderstorms are sometimes called thundershowers. Thunderstorms occur in a type of cloud known as a cumulonimbus. They are usually accompanied by strong winds and often produce heavy rain and sometimes snow, sleet, or hail, but some thunderstorms produce little precipitation or no precipitation at all. Thunderstorms may line up in a series or become a rainband, known as a squall line. Strong or severe thunderstorms include some of the most dangerous weather phenomena, including large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Some of the most persistent severe thunderstorms, known as supercells, rotate as do cyclones. While most thunderstorms move with the mean wind flow through the layer of the troposphere that they occupy, vertical wind shear sometimes causes a deviation in their course at a right angle to the wind shear direction.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mesocyclone</span> Region of rotation within a powerful thunderstorm

A mesocyclone is a meso-gamma mesoscale region of rotation (vortex), typically around 2 to 6 mi in diameter, most often noticed on radar within thunderstorms. In the northern hemisphere it is usually located in the right rear flank of a supercell, or often on the eastern, or leading, flank of a high-precipitation variety of supercell. The area overlaid by a mesocyclone’s circulation may be several miles (km) wide, but substantially larger than any tornado that may develop within it, and it is within mesocyclones that intense tornadoes form.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hook echo</span> Weather radar signature indicating tornadic circulation in a supercell thunderstorm

A hook echo is a pendant or hook-shaped weather radar signature as part of some supercell thunderstorms. It is found in the lower portions of a storm as air and precipitation flow into a mesocyclone, resulting in a curved feature of reflectivity. The echo is produced by rain, hail, or even debris being wrapped around the supercell. It is one of the classic hallmarks of tornado-producing supercells. The National Weather Service may consider the presence of a hook echo coinciding with a tornado vortex signature as sufficient to justify issuing a tornado warning.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cyclogenesis</span> The development or strengthening of cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere

Cyclogenesis is the development or strengthening of cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere. Cyclogenesis is an umbrella term for at least three different processes, all of which result in the development of some sort of cyclone, and at any size from the microscale to the synoptic scale.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Funnel cloud</span> Funnel-shaped cloud of condensed water droplets, associated with a rotating column of wind

A funnel cloud is a funnel-shaped cloud of condensed water droplets, associated with a rotating column of wind and extending from the base of a cloud but not reaching the ground or a water surface. A funnel cloud is usually visible as a cone-shaped or needle like protuberance from the main cloud base. Funnel clouds form most frequently in association with supercell thunderstorms, and are often, but not always, a visual precursor to tornadoes. Funnel clouds are visual phenomena, these are not the vortex of wind itself.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Multiple-vortex tornado</span> Tornado comprising multiple vortices

A multiple-vortex tornado is a tornado that contains several vortices revolving around, inside of, and as part of the main vortex. The only times multiple vortices may be visible are when the tornado is first forming or when condensation and debris are balanced such that subvortices are apparent without being obscured. They can add over 100 mph to the ground-relative wind in a tornado circulation and are responsible for most cases where narrow arcs of extreme destruction lie right next to weak damage within tornado paths.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gustnado</span> Ground vortex formed from a downburst of a thunderstorm

A gustnado is a brief, shallow surface-based vortex which forms within the downburst emanating from a thunderstorm. The name is a portmanteau by elision of "gust front tornado", as gustnadoes form due to non-tornadic straight-line wind features in the downdraft (outflow), specifically within the gust front of strong thunderstorms. Gustnadoes tend to be noticed when the vortices loft sufficient debris or form condensation cloud to be visible although it is the wind that makes the gustnado, similarly to tornadoes. As these eddies very rarely connect from the surface to the cloud base, they are very rarely considered as tornadoes. The gustnado has little in common with tornadoes structurally or dynamically in regard to vertical development, intensity, longevity, or formative process—as classic tornadoes are associated with mesocyclones within the inflow (updraft) of the storm, not the outflow.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Index of meteorology articles</span>

This is a list of meteorology topics. The terms relate to meteorology, the interdisciplinary scientific study of the atmosphere that focuses on weather processes and forecasting.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cumulus Congestus cloud</span> Form of cumulus clouds

Cumulus congestus clouds, also known as towering cumulus, are a form of cumulus that can be based in the low or middle height ranges. They achieve considerable vertical development in areas of deep, moist convection. They are an intermediate stage between cumulus mediocris and cumulonimbus, sometimes producing showers of snow, rain, or ice pellets. Precipitation that evaporates before reaching the surface is virga.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Landspout</span> Tornado not originating from a mesocyclone

Landspout is a term created by atmospheric scientist Howard B. Bluestein in 1985 for a kind of tornado not associated with a mesocyclone. The Glossary of Meteorology defines a landspout as

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tornadogenesis</span> Process by which a tornado forms

Tornadogenesis is the process by which a tornado forms. There are many types of tornadoes and these vary in methods of formation. Despite ongoing scientific study and high-profile research projects such as VORTEX, tornadogenesis is a volatile process and the intricacies of many of the mechanisms of tornado formation are still poorly understood.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Severe weather</span> Any dangerous meteorological phenomenon

Severe weather is any dangerous meteorological phenomenon with the potential to cause damage, serious social disruption, or loss of human life. Types of severe weather phenomena vary, depending on the latitude, altitude, topography, and atmospheric conditions. High winds, hail, excessive precipitation, and wildfires are forms and effects of severe weather, as are thunderstorms, downbursts, tornadoes, waterspouts, tropical cyclones, and extratropical cyclones. Regional and seasonal severe weather phenomena include blizzards (snowstorms), ice storms, and duststorms. Extreme weather phenomena which cause extreme heat, cold, wetness or drought often will bring severe weather events. One of the principal effects of anthropogenic climate change is changes in severe and extreme weather patterns.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atmospheric convection</span> Atmospheric phenomenon

Atmospheric convection is the result of a parcel-environment instability, or temperature difference layer in the atmosphere. Different lapse rates within dry and moist air masses lead to instability. Mixing of air during the day which expands the height of the planetary boundary layer leads to increased winds, cumulus cloud development, and decreased surface dew points. Moist convection leads to thunderstorm development, which is often responsible for severe weather throughout the world. Special threats from thunderstorms include hail, downbursts, and tornadoes.

Convective storm detection is the meteorological observation, and short-term prediction, of deep moist convection (DMC). DMC describes atmospheric conditions producing single or clusters of large vertical extension clouds ranging from cumulus congestus to cumulonimbus, the latter producing thunderstorms associated with lightning and thunder. Those two types of clouds can produce severe weather at the surface and aloft.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Steam devil</span> Type of whirlwind

A steam devil is a small, weak whirlwind over water that has drawn fog into the vortex, thus rendering it visible. They form over large lakes and oceans during cold air outbreaks while the water is still relatively warm, and can be an important mechanism in vertically transporting moisture. They are a component of sea smoke.

The following is a glossary of tornado terms. It includes scientific as well as selected informal terminology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of meteorology</span> List of definitions of terms and concepts commonly used in meteorology

This glossary of meteorology is a list of terms and concepts relevant to meteorology and atmospheric science, their sub-disciplines, and related fields.


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