• U.S.

Science: Waterspouts

3 minute read

¶ One day last week a black cloud rolled in from Lake Erie toward Conneaut, Ohio, dropped from its belly a thin, whirling column which touched the dark water, churned up a fountain of spray. This towering waterspout, more than 3,000 ft. high, moved in over the fringe of the town, where it began to behave like a tornado. It smashed windows in a score of houses, ripped off a porch, reduced a chicken coop to matchwood, hurled a bevy of screeching fowl high into the air. Prancing into the Nickel Plate Road yards, the funnel sucked up some heavy cans of calcium carbide, flung one 300 yd. against the side of a coal tower. After 20 min. the twister was lifted back into its mother cloud, drenching the ground with water as it rose.

¶ Hour later another and smaller waterspout raced in from the lake toward awe-struck Conneaut, expired in a lakeside park.

¶ Last fortnight a tall waterspout formed off Staten Island, N. Y. played around for ten minutes before vanishing, did no damage. Coast guardsmen estimated its height at 2,000 ft., biggest ever sighted in New York harbor, first of any size since 1924.

Ancient mariners regarded waterspouts as dragons, tried to disperse them by stamping their feet, shouting, beating drums, clashing swords. When gunpowder came into use, sailors tried to break the columns by shooting cannon. The spouts are chiefly vapor but may contain fresh water condensed from the cloud or salt water sucked up from the sea. Like tornadoes they are atmospheric vortices caught by conflicting air currents, with partial vacuums at their cores. In general, however, they are much less violent than the average tornado, do damage only by dropping their loads of water. If a land tornado passed out to sea, it would become a waterspout, but the water sucked up into the column would nullify to a great extent the destructive force of the vacuum.

Many an old sailor has never seen a waterspout, but when they appear at all they are usually in groups. As many as 30 have been sighted from a single ship in one day. Twenty or thirty feet is the average diameter, although a few are as thick as 700 ft. Spouts a mile high have been reported. Usually they move with the wind but may travel in other directions at speeds up to 80 m.p.h. Average life of a spout is 15 min.

In 1886 a vicious spout swung inland from the bay off Swansea, Wales, struck a hillside, gutted a row of houses, washed 8,000 tons of earth, rock, debris and human beings to the bottom of the slope. Once a waterspout hit a White Star liner headon, doused the crow’s nest, slopped tons of water on the decks, wrecked the bridge and chartroom, flooded cabins. Five years ago Bordeaux housewives reaped a harvest of small fish swept up from the River Garonne into a water twister, carried inshore and deposited wriggling in the streets.

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