Scientists Say: Waterspout

This is what happens when a whirlwind and body of water cross paths


This is a waterspout that formed off the coast of Oregon in 2005.


Waterspout (noun, “WAH-ter-spowt”)

This is a whirlwind of air that occurs over a body of water. The whirlwind does not usually suck up water. Instead, it’s a rotating cloud of misty air. Waterspouts look similar to tornadoes. And some waterspouts actually are tornadoes that form during a thunderstorm over a body of water. But most waterspouts aren’t tornadoes. They don’t even form during thunderstorms. Instead, they form from winds close to the water’s surface and rise toward the clouds above. These are “fair weather waterspouts.” They often form above the ocean and get their mist from sea spray.   

Waterspouts usually don’t last long. But they can be dangerous. In the United States, the National Weather Service even issues a tornado warning if a waterspout hops on to the shore.

In a sentence

Most waterspouts happen in tropical areas, but they can also happen during blizzards.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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