(This column was first published in the April 14, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)
Until a few weeks ago I didn't realize that waterspouts occur away from the ocean. Now I find that they are occasionally to be seen not only on the Great Lakes but even on tiny Lake Tahoe in northern California.
The only one I ever witnessed was in the Caribbean during World War II. Even far off it was impressive: a narrow column that rose like a twisted soda straw high into the sky.
I was very surprised then when in mid-January I received Brett Ewald's report of seeing more than thirty of them over Lake Ontario east of Youngstown. Of these, he told me, "eight or nine stretched up to the clouds."
A check with Tom Niziol at the National Weather Service confirmed that we do indeed have waterspouts in this region. He told me about one that even appeared on local television. The photographer, seeking one of those background settings shots of Lake Erie from the Small Boat Harbor, got more than he expected when a waterspout moved in off Lake Erie directly toward him. A gutsy guy, he stood his ground and continued to film as the spout approached and, when it reached shore, rose over his head to disappear.
But Tom referred me to Toronto meteorologist Wade Szilagyi, who is an expert on waterspouts. Wade appreciated hearing about Brett Ewald's experience but informed me that the "winter waterspouts" that what Brett had reported were not true waterspouts but Arctic outbreak vortices or, less technically, steam devils. He gave me the following succinct analysis:
"Steam devils are whirls of steam that form over open water when very cold air from Canada moves over the region. They appear in varying sizes from thin skinny columns to large wide columns with a clear central core. They appear white when the sun is shining on them or dark grey when under cloud cover. Steam devils range in size from a few feet to a couple of thousand feet in height and a few feet to a couple of hundred feet in width. Steam devils start to form at air temperatures of 7°F, becoming more frequent as it is colder and windier. Steam devils are easily mistaken as waterspouts especially due to the poor contrast over the water. However, on occasion, when several large steam devils merge together the phenomenon known as the rare 'winter waterspout' forms. The winter waterspout has rarely been seen with only four photographs known to have been taken. Winter waterspouts probably occur more often; however, snow showers usually obscure them over the lake. This past winter has been colder than average with much of the region under a cold Artic air mass. As a result, several sightings of steam devils have been made. The last occurrence of so many sightings took place back in 1994 with a sighting of the rare winter waterspout taking place as well."
Wade likened the smaller steam devils to those innocuous dust devils that form over land to raise debris a few feet off the ground.
Hopefully the time for steam devils has finally passed this year, but lake sailors are well advised to be on the lookout for summer and early fall waterspouts, which can be dangerous. Although weathermen say that most waterspouts are not tornadoes, they can pack winds of up to 200 miles per hour. National meteorologist Joseph Golden suggests that boaters should steer a path at right angles to that of the waterspout in order to avoid it. He adds that swimmers caught by one might try diving underwater, but that he's not prepared to bet his reputation on that ploy.