A waterspout week

Surfside waterspout courtesy Mark Wilson August 2, 2021
Surfside waterspout courtesy Mark Wilson August 2, 2021

When cooler air moves over warmer water, especially during summer in the ‘tropical’ Gulf area, we often see waterspouts!

A lot of people think of these as just tornadoes filled with water, but the structure is considerably different! Granted, there are thunderstorms that create funnel clouds which become tornadoes (when a funnel reaches to land, it’s then a tornado) and, in fact, this funnel cloud below occurred in a thunderstorm last Tuesday that blossomed over Galveston Bay. You can see Moody Gardens Hotel at the bottom of the pic as this storm went right over Offatts Bayou.

The Funnel Cloud was in association with thunderstorms that developed over the bay. Courtesy Jody Stein August 3, 2021

This cyclone has a more pointed look to it--very much like a funnel that forms downward from the clouds toward the water.

True waterspouts form much differently: from the water UPWARD toward cumulus clouds moving across.

Cold air moves over warmer water causing the warm, humid air to rise. The rising motion spirals upward toward the cloud generating strong enough winds to pull the water with it creating the waterspout. And it won’t fall apart until enough cold air disrupts it. The cover photo is a perfect example, with fair weather cumulus clouds and blue sky. Here it is again and I’ve circled where the waterspout begins at the surface -- you can see the spray pulling upward:

Water spout forming from the water upward to the cloud--I've circled that spray of water that is rising upward. That is where the waterspout actually begins, NOT from the cloud downward

The waterspout above was captured by Mark Wilson at Surfside last Tuesday around noon, another one was photographed over Crystal Beach on Bolivar in the early evening by Tornado Expeditions Storm Chasing Tours, The cows don’t seem much interested but tornado warnings were issued--the reason being that when a waterspout makes landfall, it is considered a tornado.

Waterspout the evening of August 2, 2021 courtesy Tornadic Expeditions Storm Chasing

Are waterspouts dangerous? Yes!

Generally, waterspouts stay over water, last 10 to 20 minutes, and leave everyone alone. But occasionally they plow their way on shore with 60 to 100 mph. You might recall the August 2009 waterspout that busted over the seawall as an 80 mph tornado wreaking havoc in Galveston:

This waterspout was shot by Daniel Pruessner near 14th street on August 30, 2009

This tore the roof off the Dolphin World Souvenir shop on the seawall, then seriously damaged several homes. Look how Dolphin World’s roof just peeled away like a can of sardines. Keep in mind the building had survived Hurricane Ike a year earlier, but not this waterspout!

Dolphin World lost its roof

Kudos to the Dolphin World owners for building back bigger and stronger! Here’s just one of several homes that suffered enormous damage:

This house was one of several that had severe damage from the waterspout

You can read the National Weather Service Houston’s detailed report of the waterspout/tornado and see many more photos of the damage.

And check this out: a still picture from a Grand Isle, Louisiana, waterspout back in 2012 that reached 112 mph winds and tore up homes on land:

Grand Isle, LA 2021 waterspout with 112mph winds courtesy EarthSky.org

The YouTube video is right here and I can assure you it’s worth a watch!

So pay attention to waterspouts. While they are usually not a threat, there is no guarantee they won’t roll right up on shore and create serious danger. If you can, get out of the way!

Have a great weekend and be safe!


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About the Authors:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with three decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, social media news and local crime.