What Causes a Waterspout

Waterspouts, sometimes known as Sea Tornado, are one of the strangest water phenomena that are considered a natural event that happens around the globe. What Causes a Waterspout?

  • Hot, humid H2O conditions
  • Fast-growing cumulus clouds
  • Two opposing winds spin & create a funnel with an upward air current
  • Any water evaporating from that spot gets caught in the funnel.
  • Another way in which a Waterspout form is if a tornado is pushed out over the water creating the same results

There are regions in the world that witness water spouts more often than others. The Florida Keys, Greece, and the waters of the Great Lakes are the most common places to witness the awesome spectacle.

What Causes a Waterspout


Waterspouts are created over ocean surfaces in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. They can also occur over harbors and lakes in warmer temperatures of the year. Waterspouts are associated with severe thunderstorms and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning.

Another reason for waterspouts at sea is believed to be vertical wind shear which is responsible for creating wind force that changes direction as it goes higher. This leads to the creation of the funnel that you see during the event.

A normal waterspout at sea looks like a narrow tornado that can range a few feet in width and a few feet high to several hundred feet high. They are often very narrow water structures but not all the time. There have been very large waterspouts have been reported on different occasions around the world.

For many years scientists thought that Waterspouts were made up of seawater that was revolving inside a tornado-like action. However, what they learned years later was that the water in the funnel was made up of cloud spray. The clouds gather and the condensation of water from them leads to the formation of a swirling mass of water droplets that we see in the waterspout.

There are five stages of waterspout formation:

  1. Dark spot. The surface of the water takes on a dark appearance where the vortex, or column of rotating wind, reaches it.
  2.  Spiral pattern. Light and dark bands spiral out from the dark spot.
  3. Spray ring. A swirling ring of sea spray called a cascade forms around the dark spot. It appears to have an eye at the center, similar to that seen in a hurricane.
  4.  Mature vortex. The waterspout is now at its most intense stage, visible from the surface of the water to the clouds overhead. It appears to have a hollow funnel and may be surrounded by vapor.
  5. Decay. When the flow of warm air into the vortex weakens, the waterspout collapses.


Fair Weather Waterspout


Waterspouts fall into two categories: Fair Weather waterspouts and Tornadic waterspouts.

Tornadic waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water or move from land to water. They have the same characteristics as a land tornado. They are associated with severe thunderstorms and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning. They are a far rare type of Waterspout than the Fair Weather Waterspout. These types of funnels move from the surface of the water upward toward the sky.

Cumulus clouds are the clouds you learned to draw at an early age and they serve as the symbol of all clouds (much like the snowflake symbolizes winter). Their tops are rounded, puffy, and a brilliant white when sunlit, while their bottoms are flat and relatively dark.

How Do Fair Weather Waterspouts Form


Waterspouts fall into two categories: fair-weather waterspouts and tornadic waterspouts.

Tornadic waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water or move from land to water. They have the same characteristics as a land tornado. They are associated with severe thunderstorms and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning.

Fair-weather waterspouts usually form along the dark flat base of a line of developing cumulus clouds. This type of waterspout is generally not associated with thunderstorms. While tornadic waterspouts develop downward in a thunderstorm, a fair weather waterspout develops on the surface of the water and works its way upward. By the time the funnel is visible, a fair-weather waterspout is near maturity. Fair-weather waterspouts form in light wind conditions so they normally move very little.

If a waterspout moves onshore, the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, as some of them can cause significant damage and injuries to people. Typically, fair weather waterspouts dissipate rapidly when they make landfall and rarely penetrate far inland.

Fair Weather Waterspouts usually form along the dark flat base of a line of developing cumulus clouds. This type of waterspout is generally not associated with thunderstorms.

They can develop during sunny mild weather. While tornadic waterspouts develop upward in a thunderstorm, a fair-weather waterspout develops on the surface of the water and works its way upward. By the time the funnel is visible, a fair-weather waterspout is near maturity and the event is nearly over.

These types of Funnels can last 15-20 minutes after they are formed. Fairweather waterspouts form in light wind conditions so they normally move very little and are very slow. They are far more common than the Tornadic Waterspouts

They also tend to be quite weak, rarely rating higher than an EF0 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. Another characteristic of fair-weather waterspouts is that multiple vortices or funnels often form in the same area at one time. Whenever a waterspout moves over land it is called a Landspout. However, Fair Weather waterspouts often unravel and dissipate as they approach land and rarely make it.


Is a Water Spout Dangerous


Regardless if a Waterspout is a Fair Weather Waterspout or a Tornadic Water Spout they both can be considered a danger to people that are living close to large bodies of water or are on boats on the water. Boaters should never come close to one to try and investigate. If a Waterspout does appear they are recommended to turn the boat at a 90-degree angle and move away as fast as possible.

Sometimes in an event, the wind speed can be between 50 mph and 150 mph. The size of a waterspout can be up to 100 meters wide.  If a boat gets inadvertently caught up in waterspout experts recommend that they:

  • Try traveling at right angles to its apparent direction of movement.
  • Dark spots on the water, followed by rings or a sudden shift in wind can be warning signs of a developing waterspout.
  • If a waterspout is in close proximity and you are unable to avoid it, take down any sail, close any hatches, and if possible stay below deck.


If you are out on the open water during the summer months, in light winds, look for some telltale signs in the line of flat bottom cumulus clouds or thunderstorms, or in lines of thunderstorms that can develop any time of year. Although waterspouts are not as destructive as their land-based cousins their ability to carry anything in their path makes them dangerous to vessels and small craft. Not only can waterspouts cause havoc to mariners, but they can also devastate coral reefs and marine organisms that are close to the surface of the water.


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What Causes a Tornatic Waterspout


The Wilmington forecast office oversees five coastal counties, from Surf City in North Carolina to the South Santee River in South Carolina, and monitors marine weather up to 40 miles seaward. Spawned by massive thunderstorms, “tornadic-type” waterspouts are more easily detected by radar, with warnings broadcast in advance.

The waterspout risk forecasts first became operational last summer as part of the Surf Zone Forecast. Accessible on the Web, the forecast provides information about coastal hazards, such as lightning and rip currents, as well as daily weather and surf conditions. If you’re interested in the weather check this out! La Crosse Technology 330-2315 Pro Unit and Weather Underground Suitable a really cool instrument through MyWaterEarth&Sky sold by Amazon

Wilmington’s NC online Surf Zone Forecast is enhanced by graphics that display various hazards, including a color-coded map detailing waterspout risk levels — none, low, moderate, and high. Mariners and beachgoers can check the waterspout risk forecast, which is issued twice daily during the spring and summer months, the peak times for waterspouts.

Although waterspouts along North Carolina are not as frequent as in the Keys, they are dangerous and sometimes even tornadic, according to joseph Golden, senior meteorologist and waterspout expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“The primary warm axis of the Gulf Stream and large coastal bays and inland waterways are favored regions of waterspout occurrence,” Golden explains in the Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Scienceschapter dedicated to waterspouts.


Because the event happens and ends so fast, Waterspouts are hard to predict so the science is still young and unpredictable. Even boaters are able to see them before meteorologists can forecast them because of their size. They are often gone before a captain announces them over the radio to warn other ships in the area. Golden says a waterspout will happen fast and the event ends fast.

“The spinning process is a more efficient way to transfer mass, to transfer the warm air upward,” he adds.
Tall, puffy cumulus clouds with flat, dark bottoms are formed by updrafts and are signs that air is rising and could spin up a waterspout on the water surface. As the air rises beneath the cloud and above the surface-fed vortex, a connection between sea and sky is made, and a waterspout is formed. “The updraft grabs the spin and stretches it out. It’s kind of like skaters pulling their arms in, which causes them to spin faster and faster,”
Sunrise to noon is the most conducive time for waterspout formation


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Meteorologists can examine the temperature of water and air, moisture, and also the speed of the wind to determine the possibility of waterspouts. The Waterspout continues to be one of the most mysterious phenomena of the sea for hundreds of years. Forecasters for years have relied on the fisherman and other boats to report on the radio the event of a Waterspout. Open communication on the water is a boater’s best protection against Waterspouts and their dangers according to Jim Bahen, former North Carolina Sea Grant fisheries specialist who now works as a recreational fishing guide.


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JimGalloway Author Editor


References :

Sea Grant North Carolina Coastwatch-

Forecasting Waterspouts: New Service Aims to Increase Safety

National Weather Service WaterSpouts


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