Waterspouts: Coastal Twisters

waterspout off the Riviera Maya coast
By Dani Knod

As people who live in coastal areas know, when an exchange of energy occurs between the ocean and the atmosphere the results can oftentimes be quite disastrous. Sitting in hurricane season, people pay much closer attention to the conditions of the ocean as well as weather passing their direction. Many of the weather threats offer a headís up warning, and days of preparation can alleviate possible damages. However, other interplays between sea and sky can produce short-lived, violent phenomena that last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours.

waterspout off the Riviera Maya coast
When the right atmospheric conditions are at play, they can combine with warm, moist air rising from the surface of the ocean, yielding a spinning column of air. This vortex is a maritime version of the land-based tornado, and is called a waterspout. Like its landlubber relative, the waterspout feeds off of unstable atmospheric conditions created as a cold front boundary passes over the warm ocean air. It is where winds of differing consistencies shear past each other that a vortex may form sending a funnel of water thousands of feet into the air to the base of the clouds above. As the funnel meets with the clouds, the union is much like a spinning figure skater pulling his arms in close to the body. The number of rotations per minute increases dramatically.

A typical waterspout lasts anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes and gusts of wind equivalent to hurricane force have been known to form within the column. The status of a waterspout does change to a tornado if the funnel passes over land. Waterspouts are not noted to be very dangerous but can affect boats in the area. They are awesome weather spectacles that are quite a thrilling sight to any first-timer!

waterspout off the Riviera Maya coast
I first spotted a waterspout while returning from a dive years ago. Being from Tornado Alley in the USA, I was quite familiar with panicking upon sight of a funnel cloud. This one, however, caught me in what I felt was a pretty vulnerable position. My first reaction was to grab my radio and candles and head to the basement. However, as I was situated in a panga boat in the midst of the ocean, I did not believe I was in the safest of all places!

The boat captain did not seem bothered, but I could not tell if he was simply trying to remain calm rather than adding more terror to this small boat full of wide-eyed divers. He started the engine and motored toward Akumal Bay as the six of us did not take out eyes from the thin straw connecting the clouds above to the waterís surface. As we were passing into the calm waters of the bay through the cut in the reef, we saw the waterspout dissipate. It basically fizzled into nothing more than some dark clouds.

I was thankful for the gained sensation of safety that crept over my body, and at the same time was alive with adrenaline from seeing, first-hand, a wicked natural weather occurrence that I had never experienced before. Now, I probably could have witnessed this from the shore and been a bit calmer, but it was definitely a sight that I will not soon forget.

Photos: Taken on Half Moon Bay in North Akumal by visitor Greg Brown. Brown witnessed up to four waterspouts in the sky at the same time on this stormy afternoon. Keep your eyes turned to the skies to see if you too can catch this explosive natural phenomenon!


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