Waterspouts: The weather witches of Marco

Photo of the water spout off Marco Island by Gerry Bailey.

Photo of the water spout off Marco Island by Gerry Bailey.

— It has been said that tornados are the finger of God. For many, the Wicked Witch of the West in the “Wizard of Oz” is not nearly as terrifying as the tornado that touched down in Kansas and swept away the imaginations of millions.

Arguably, tornadoes are the most destructive force on the planet but the water born versions of God’s finger often make appearances in the waters near Marco Island.

On the morning of Saturday, June 19, a thunderstorm began brewing above the waters south of Caxambas and over the Cape Romano Shoals. As the sun-touched moisture, heavy with tropical air began to rise in the classic cloud formation known to meteorologists as the cumulonimbus; any mariner in the distance could not help but take notice. Mariners can never know if a summer thunderstorm will get worse, go away, or be the most frightening experience ever.

Within minutes of the rapidly darkening morning, thunder began rumbling as lighting strikes over the gulf set an ominous mood. A light wind began to die signaling the quiet before the storm as the rising cloud formations began to climb higher. With the approaching bank of dark rumbling clouds spreading to the east to embrace Goodland and out to the west of Marco Beach, the first water spout began as a pronounced dark finger reaching down to the water in the path of the growing storm. As the first finger reached down and made contact with the gulf, another finger began descending ahead of the incoming squall. Before the second waterspout was a completed whirlwind column, a third, forth, and fifth, tornado-like tentacle was reaching toward Caxambas pass.

In the “Wizard of Oz,” there only was only one tornadic finger of God, but on this particular Southwest Florida morning, Mother Nature was stretching her fingers and showing her strength.

One waterspout in a thunderstorm cloud is not uncommon, and two are certainly nothing out of the ordinary, but as five of the weather witches were sighted together, it was a morning that local mariners and residents of South Marco will never forget.

Waterspouts have many of the characteristics of a tornado on land, but lack the forceful destruction of their weather witch cousins from Kansas and the surrounding Midwest. The estimated wind strength of a waterspout on the Enhanced Fujita Scale — the scale used by meteorologists to determine tornadic activity strength — is typically less than 67 miles-per-hour, as opposed to land based tornados that generate winds over 300 miles-per-hour, according to World Book Encyclopedia.

Waterspouts form when a rising column of warm and moisture-rich air rises faster than the surrounding sea level atmosphere. When the rapidly rising air is replaced by more air, rushing in, a spinning vortex is formed making the rising column stronger. The faster the atmosphere rises determines the strength of the vortex and the waterspout. When there are multiple columns of low pressure rising air, there can be frequent and multiple waterspouts.

According to the National Weather Service, Mariners sighting waterspouts should move away from the funnel clouds at 90-degree angles, and waterspout sightings should be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Most waterspouts near Marco form as columns of relative low pressure rising air in the base of severe thunderstorms. The good news for Islanders is because of the slow moving vertical development clouds; most of our regional waterspouts are of the “fair-weather” type and advance very slowly. If by chance, a waterspout should move on shore, expect a rapid deterioration of wind strength, but not before the dust devil-type wind can uproot beach umbrellas and lounge chairs, and cause potential injury from storm-tossed and flying debris.

Over 400 waterspouts are reported annually throughout the Florida Keys but most are of the “Fair weather” variety that turn into dust devils once they make contact with the beach or land. A typical waterspout only lasts about 10 to 15 minutes but can reach several hundred feet into the air as it descends from the base of a thunderstorm cloud. Waterspouts began to decay when the flow of warm air into the funnel cloud weakens, but for many, the memory of a water-born weather witch will be unforgettable.

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