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There are two major types of waterspouts: tornadic waterspouts and fair-weather waterspouts.
Fair-weather waterspouts, however, are much more common. Fair-weather waterspouts are rarely dangerous. The clouds from which they descend are not fast-moving, so fair-weather waterspouts are often static. Fair-weather waterspouts are associated with developing storm systems, but not storms themselves.
There are five stages of waterspout formation:
2. Spiral pattern. Light and dark bands spiral out from the dark spot.
5. Decay. When the flow of warm air into the vortex weakens, the waterspout collapses.
The average spout is around 50 meters (165 feet) in diameter, with wind speeds of 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour), corresponding to the weakest types of tornadoes on land. The largest waterspouts can have diameters of 100 meters (330 feet) and last for up to one hour, though the average lifetime is just 5 to 10 minutes.
The National Weather Service recognizes the dangers posed by waterspouts as part of its "severe local storm" warning list. Waterspouts not only put swimmers and boaters at risk, they also pose a threat to aircraft. Helicopters flying near waterspouts can be damaged and thrown off-course by such intense winds.