Until I took my first college meteorology class, I always thought the large tornado-like things known as waterspouts were merely a myth. I was fascinated with the raw power and terrifying beauty of tornadoes, but never could grasp the concept of tornadoes over water. Little did I know, not only do waterspouts exist, but there have been an unprecedented number of them spotted over the Great Lakes this year.
As we approach mid-October fall seems to be in full swing. Temperatures will continue to drop and soon enough Rochester will experience its first frost of the season. Summertime severe weather appears to have come to an end. However as recently as last week, waterspouts were spotted over lakes Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. Doesn’t it seem a bit strange for these small-scale tornadoes to be present in late September and early October? In order to answer this, it’s necessary to take a closer look into what a waterspout actually is.
According to the National Weather Service waterspouts are similar to tornadoes over water and are broken into two categories: fair weather waterspouts and tornadic waterspouts.
Tornadic waterspouts are merely tornadoes that form over water or move over water and have the same characteristics of regular tornadoes. They are commonly associated with severe thunderstorms, high winds, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning. Since these waterspouts are associated with severe thunderstorms they are less common during autumn over the Great Lakes.
The waterspouts Rochesterians and Upstate New Yorkers most generally see throughout fall are fair-weather waterspouts. These waterspouts are usually less dangerous than a tornadic waterspout since fair weather waterspouts are not associated with severe thunderstorms. Typically, fair weather waterspouts dissipate rapidly when they make landfall.
These waterspouts occur most frequently during the months of August, September, and October, when the waters of the Great Lakes are near their warmest levels of the year. Fair weather waterspout formation typically occurs when cold air moves across the Great Lakes and results in large temperature differences between the warm water and the overriding cold air.
According to Wade Szilagyi, head of Canada’s International Centre for Waterspout Research, there have been over 160 waterspouts recorded over the Great Lakes this season, an unprecedented amount. Why such an increase? Well, this unusually warm summer warmed the Great Lakes to above normal temperatures. The recent periodic cool outbreaks over the lakes results in a larger than normal temperature variations with height, enabling a more-unstable environment, and more frequent waterspouts.
Another major reason for the increased frequency is you, the public. Since almost every cell-phone is equipped with a camera these days, it’s so easy to capture a waterspout via photo or video and upload it to a social media website.
Waterspouts are one of the more fascinating aspects of weather especially during this time of the year. So next time you are near the shore of Lake Ontario be sure to grab your camera, as predicting waterspouts is never easy.