|If you’ve ever been boating on Lake Erie and have witnessed a waterspout close-up, you’ll probably agree that it can be a scary, nerve-racking experience. Since waterspouts and tornadoes are cousins, it’s only natural that what you experienced probably got your adrenaline pumping.
Here are a couple of dictionary definitions of waterspouts:
- A tornado or lesser whirlwind occurring over water and resulting in a funnel-shaped whirling column of air and spray.
- A funnel-shaped or tubular column of rotating cloud-filled wind usually extending from the underside of a cumulus or cumulonimbus cloud down to a cloud of spray torn up by the whirling winds from the surface of an ocean or lake.
Waterspouts on the water are usually weaker than their tornado cousins. The most common occurrences are in the Florida Keys or other areas of warm ocean waters. But if you’re a Lake Erie boater and have witnessed one of these, you know from first-hand experience that they often occur here too. If you see clouds with dark flat bottoms during the first signs of rain, odds are good that waterspouts could soon develop. The most frequent sightings are during the months of August, September, and October, when the water temperature is the warmest of the year. Many times they are observed as a funnel hanging from a cloud that doesn’t quite reach the water surface. They form when cold air moves across warm water. They usually last between two to twenty minutes and move at speeds from ten to fifteen knots. Waterspouts often form in groups when winds are calm at the surface. If you see one, keep an eye out for more. Also, since weather conditions are slow to change during warm water months, it is very possible to see them on consecutive days.
Are they dangerous to boaters? Certainly! Waterspouts should be taken very seriously. There are many weather hazards on Lake Erie and waterspouts are included on the list. As a boater or a person living along Lake Erie, you must keep current on all developing situations. When warnings are issued for waterspouts, be prepared to quickly seek safe harbor or find shelter out of its path. A weather radio is an absolute must if you plan to venture out into Lake Erie. Listen frequently to the Nearshore Marine Forecast. When waterspouts have been detected by weather radar or reported by law enforcement officials, a Special Marine Warning is issued by the National Weather Service.
If a waterspout looks like it’s heading toward you, operate your boat at right angles away from it. What if one is about to hit your boat? Should you dive overboard to avoid the flying debris usually associated with tornadoes? Experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have studied waterspouts extensively. They warn boaters that no one really knows what the exact water conditions are directly under a waterspout. Therefore diving overboard should be a last desperate attempt to avoid any flying debris. An additional risk of jumping overboard is hypothermia; the lowering of the body’s core temperature, which can occur even in warmer summertime waters. If you take this course of action, make sure you get out of the water as soon as possible.