Apocalyptic waterspout stuns locals – but what makes them occur?

A week ago, locals in the city of Cienfuegos, Cuba were treated to an awe-inspiring meteorological event.

A gigantic waterspout was filmed over the city – looking like something out of an alien invasion film.

Swirling around for up to eight minutes, the waterspout looked like an upended volcano.

Although reasonably common, waterspouts aren’t often reported or filmed. In this case, it followed storms in the area and happened at around 5pm local time last Saturday.

‘Without a doubt it is a beautiful show,’ Virgilio Regueira, a meteorologist at the Cienfuegos Provincial Meteorological Centre said on Facebook.

‘But be very careful, because we know that they are very dangerous.’

The waterspout spotted off the coast of Cienfuegos, Cuba (Reuters)
The waterspout spotted off the coast of Cienfuegos, Cuba (Reuters)

Waterspouts are, in a nutshell, a spinning column of air sucking up water from the sea and connecting it to the clouds above.

Windspeeds inside the waterspout can often reach up to 100kph. However, they’re usually very short lived, lasting only around five minutes. Which is why it’s not often they get caught on camera.

How does a waterspout occur?

Video grab from footage filmed from a cruise ship shows a huge tornado making its way across the Mediterranean Sea. See SWNS story SWTPtornado. Incredible footage filmed from a cruise ship shows a huge tornado making its way across the Mediterranean Sea. A man on a cruise was stunned to see a perfectly-formed tornado in the middle of the Med. Sam Thompson, 29, was on a cruise ship going from Rome to Palma de Mallorca when he spotted the incredible sight ? after a perfectly clear day turned dark and stormy in minutes. The video, filmed on September 9, shows the tornado ? known as a waterspout when found at sea instead of on land.
A huge waterspout on the Mediterranean sea. (Sam Thompson / SWNS)

Waterspouts occur when winds blowing in two different directions run into each other.

Dean Narramore, a senior meteorologist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology explains the phenomenon in an in-depth piece for The Conversation.

He says the point at which the two winds meet (called a ‘convergence line’) contains a lot of rotating air near the surface. If this happens over water, it sucks the liquid up.

‘The collision of the two winds makes air move upwards because it has nowhere else to go. This rising air carries water vapour high into the sky where it creates rain showers, storms and cumulus clouds,’ Narramore writes.

‘As the air rises, it can tilt some of the horizontal spinning air near the surface into the vertical direction. When this vertical spin concentrates at a particular point it starts sucking up water — and you have yourself a waterspout.

‘Because waterspouts form on the line where two winds meet, you sometimes see a line of waterspouts in a row where the spinning low-level air is sucked upwards at a few different points.’

A waterspout typically lasts for a mere five minutes (Reuters)
A waterspout typically lasts for a mere five minutes (Reuters)

He also suggests that waterspouts are tricky for meteorologists to forecast.

‘Waterspouts look very big and impressive to the casual viewer, but to a meteorologist looking at the world’s weather patterns they are quite small. This makes them very hard to forecast with any level of confidence,’ he wrote.

‘We know the kind of weather conditions that can lead to waterspouts, so if we see those conditions forming we might know there is a chance we’ll see some. But the small scale and short life of waterspouts mean forecasting the location or timing is almost impossible.’

MORE : Mystery of giant rock with perfect split – but was it the weather or aliens?

MORE : When will it snow in the UK? Met Office winter weather predictions revealed

Tags
Tech Environment Science Weather