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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Waterspout Scares Beachgoers in Brazil

By Phil Plait

File this under terrifying but not as bad as it looks: Around 1 p.m. local time on March 1, a waterspout formed off the coast of a beach in Recife, Brazil. Of course everyone watched it, but then things got substantially more chaotic as the waterspout headed for the beach, scaring everyone and getting them to scatter.

Lots of video is popping up. Here’s one that shows the waterspout hitting the beach:

As you can see, it sends palm fronds and sand flying but doesn’t do a lot of damage (no injuries were reported). Waterspouts look like tornadoes, and they’re similar, but usually far weaker. Tornadoes form as air in a supercell starts to rotate, forming a localized and intense vortex that moves down from the cloud. Waterspouts like this one form more like dust devils, where a horizontal flow of air gets lifted up and maintains its rotation. Wind speeds in these so-called fair weather waterspouts—ones that form in calm weather, even if a dark storm cloud is nearby—top out at about 20 meters per second, but a tornado can easily have winds three times that speed.

Video taken from a different vantage point shows the spout while it’s still out off the coast, and you can see why people were freaked out; it does look like a tornado:

Amazing. The spout dies quickly once it’s over land; it probably couldn’t sustain the flow of warm air inward needed to maintain the spin.

While they’re weaker and tend not to do much damage, as you can see, you don’t want to screw around with them; the wind speeds are high enough to knock you down and carry debris. And some waterspouts do in fact form like tornadoes and can be much more severe. I’m glad no one was hurt here! And while the video is amazing, listen: If you see a waterspout heading toward you, it’s probably not the best idea to stop and take video. People will always take risks in weird weather situations, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

And if you see a fire tornado or an ash devil? Run.

Tip o' the beach umbrella to Clovis Tanganelli.

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