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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. [2] [3] [4]


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

While waterspouts form mostly in the tropics and subtropical areas, [2] other areas also report waterspouts, including Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Great Lakes, Antarctica [8] [9] and on rare occasions, the Great Salt Lake. [10] 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.

Waterspouts have 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.


Waterspout filmed off Anglesey, Wales, on 12 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 12 November 2010 by an RAF Search and Rescue crew

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. [11]

More than one waterspout can occur in the same vicinity at the same time. As many as nine simultaneous waterspouts have been reported on Lake Michigan. [8]



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. [11] 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). [12]

They are most frequently seen in tropical and sub-tropical climates, with upwards of 400 per year observed in the Florida Keys. [13] 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. [13] [14] Fair-weather waterspouts are very similar in both appearance and mechanics to landspouts, and largely behave as such if they move ashore. [13]


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. [15] A tornado which travels from land to a body of water would also be considered a tornadic waterspout. [16] 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, tornadic waterspouts can make up half of the total number. [17]


A large winter waterspout over Lake Ontario, just off the shore of Whitby, Ontario on 26 January 1994. Winter waterspout.jpg
A large winter waterspout over Lake Ontario, just off the shore of Whitby, Ontario on 26 January 1994.

A winter waterspout, also known as a snow devil, an icespout, an ice devil, a snownado, or a snowspout, is an extremely rare instance of a waterspout forming under the base of a snow squall. [18] [19] The term "winter waterspout" is used to differentiate between the common warm season waterspout and this rare winter season event. Very little is known about this phenomenon and only six known pictures of this event exist to date, four of which were taken in Ontario, Canada. 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. [20]


A family of four waterspouts seen on the Great Lakes (Lake Huron) on 9 September 1999. Great Lakes Waterspouts.jpg
A family of four waterspouts seen on the Great Lakes (Lake Huron) on 9 September 1999.
Four waterspouts seen in the Florida Keys on 5 June 2009. Quadruple Waterspout Summerland Key June 5, 2009.jpg
Four waterspouts seen in the Florida Keys on 5 June 2009.

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. [21] 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. [22] 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. [23] Waterspouts are frequently observed off the east coast of Australia, [24] [25] with several being described by Joseph Banks during the voyage of the Endeavour in 1770. [26]

Life cycle

There are five stages to the 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. [14]

Marine hazard

Waterspouts have long been recognized as serious marine hazards. Stronger waterspouts pose threats to watercraft, aircraft and people. [27] 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. [28]

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, numerous boats, and claiming hundreds of lives. [29] 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.

Threat to marine animals

Depending on how fast the winds from a waterspout are whipping, anything that is within about one yard of the surface of the water, including fish of different sizes, frogs, and even turtles, can be lifted into the air. [30] 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 100 miles (160 km) inland have experienced raining fish. [30] Fish can also be sucked up from rivers, but raining fish is not a common weather phenomenon. [30]

Research and forecasting

Szilagyi Waterspout Index (SWI)

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. [31] [32]

International Centre for Waterspout Research (ICWR)

The 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. [33] 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.


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

There was a commonly held belief among sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries that shooting a broadside cannon volley dispersed waterspouts. [34] [35] [36] Among others, Captain Vladimir Bronevskiy claims that it was a successful technique, being an eye-witness to the dissipation of a phenomenon in the Adriatic while being a midshipman aboard the frigate Venus during the 1806 campaign under Admiral Senyavin. [37]

A waterspout has been proposed as a possible reason for the inexplicable abandonment of the Mary Celeste . [38]

See also

Related Research Articles

Tornado Violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the earths surface and a cumulonimbus cloud in the air

A tornado is a rapidly 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. The windstorm 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 110 miles per hour (180 km/h), are about 250 feet (80 m) across, and travel a few miles before dissipating. The most extreme tornadoes can attain wind speeds of more than 300 miles per hour (480 km/h), are more than two miles (3 km) in diameter, and stay on the ground for dozens of miles.

Cyclone large scale air mass that rotates around a strong center of low pressure

In meteorology, a cyclone is a large scale air mass that rotates around a strong center of low atmospheric pressure. 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.

Cumulus cloud 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.

Thunderstorm type of weather

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."NWS JetStream". National Weather Service. Retrieved 26 January 2019.</ref> 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.

Mesocyclone A region of rotation within a powerful thunderstorm

A mesocyclone is storm-scale region of rotation (vortex), typically around 2 to 6 mi in diameter, within a thunderstorm. In the northern hemisphere it is particularly found in the right rear flank of a supercell or often on the eastern, or front, flank of an HP storm. The circulation of a mesocyclone covers an area much larger than the tornado that may develop within it.

Cyclogenesis naming

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.

Funnel cloud 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. Funnel clouds are visual phenomena, these are not the vortex of wind itself.

Gustnado short-lived, shallow surface-based vortex generated by a thunderstorm

A gustnado is a short-lived, 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.

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.

Fire whirl whirlwind induced by a fire and often partially composed of flame or ash

A fire whirl, also commonly known as a fire devil, is a whirlwind induced by a fire and often composed of flame or ash. These start with a whirl of wind, often made visible by smoke, and may occur when intense rising heat and turbulent wind conditions combine to form whirling eddies of air. These eddies can contract a tornado-like vortex that sucks in debris and combustible gases.

Landspout slang term for a kind of tornado not associated with the mesocyclone of a thunderstorm

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

Landfall event of a storm moving over land after being over water

Landfall is the event of a storm moving over land after being over water.

Tornadogenesis 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.

Severe weather

Severe weather refers to any dangerous meteorological phenomena 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.

Atmospheric convection

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.

Whirlwind weather phenomenon

A whirlwind is a weather phenomenon in which a vortex of wind forms due to instabilities and turbulence created by heating and flow (current) gradients. Whirlwinds occur all over the world and in any season.

VORTEX projects

The Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment or VORTEX are field projects that study tornadoes. VORTEX1 was the first time scientists completely researched the entire evolution of a tornado with an array of instrumentation, enabling a greater understanding of the processes involved with tornadogenesis. A violent tornado near Union City, Oklahoma was documented in its entirety by chasers of the Tornado Intercept Project (TIP) in 1973 and visual observations led to advancement in understanding of tornado structure and life cycles. VORTEX2 utilized enhanced technology allowing scientists to improve forecasting capabilities to improve advanced warnings to residents. VORTEX2 sought to elucidate how tornadoes form, how long they last and why they last that long, and what causes them to dissipate.

Steam devil a type of tornado

A steam devil is a small, weak whirlwind over water that has drawn fog into the vortex, thus rendering it visible.

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

Glossary of meteorology Wikimedia list article

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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Winter waterspout