Do Water Spout Reach Land?

Water spouts are a fascinating weather phenomenon that many people have witnessed offshore or from the coastline. These columnar vortexes that form over water often dissipate once they make landfall. This begs the question – do water spouts ever reach land in their fully developed state? The answer is yes, under certain conditions.

What Are Water Spouts?

A water spout is a whirling column of air and water mist that forms over a body of water, especially in tropical regions. Visually, they look like tornadoes occurring over water. There are two main types of waterspouts:

Fair Weather Waterspouts

Fair weather waterspouts are relatively weak and short-lived. They typically form along the dark, flat base of a line of developing cumulus clouds. These waterspouts do not rotate very quickly and are often associated with light winds.

Fair weather waterspouts form in light wind conditions so they rarely move onshore to reach land in their fully developed state. Generally, fair weather waterspouts dissipate rapidly when they make landfall.

Tornadic Waterspouts

Tornadic waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water or move from land to water. They have the same characteristics as a land tornado with a visible condensation funnel reaching from the cloud base to the water's surface.

Tornadic waterspouts rotate faster than fair weather waterspouts, driven by stronger winds. They form from severe thunderstorms and can be accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, frequent lightning, and heavy rain.

Can Water Spouts Move Onto Land?

Fair weather waterspouts usually dissipate quickly when they reach land. But tornadic waterspouts often intensify as they move onshore, transitioning into a land tornado.

According to a study published in the Monthly Weather Review, approximately 30% of tornadoes that make landfall in Florida initially formed as waterspouts over water. This demonstrates that tornadic waterspouts frequently traverse from water to land while remaining fully developed.

What Happens When a Waterspout Reaches Land?

Weakening and Dissipation

When a relatively weak fair weather waterspout moves ashore, it typically dissipates rapidly as it moves over land, where the air is drier and frictional forces increase. Loss of the water vapor source leads to weakening of the vortex. Fair weather waterspouts that reach land whole generally cause little to no damage before dissipating.

Maintaining Intensity

Strong tornadic waterspouts often retain their intensity and tornadic characteristics when they move over land. Essentially, they make the transition from a waterspout to a land tornado.

A study of Western Pacific tornadic waterspouts found that approximately 46% of waterspouts retained tornadic wind speeds for up to 30 minutes after moving onshore. Some even persisted as tornadoes for over 2 hours over land.


Some tornadic waterspouts actually strengthen and become more intense tornadoes after landfall. When the waterspout moves over land, it loses its moisture source from the water. This allows its vortex circulation to contract and spin faster, enhancing tornadogenesis.

A research study found tornadic waterspouts can contain mesocyclones aloft that aid tornadogenesis after landfall. Additionally, increasing surface roughness over land can sometimes aid tornadic intensification.

Are Waterspouts That Move Onshore Dangerous?

Most fair weather waterspouts quickly weaken and dissipate upon reaching land. But tornadic waterspouts that move ashore can produce damage similar to a land tornado.

When a waterspout is expected to move inland, the National Weather Service will often issue a tornado warning, especially if there is a threat of it impacting populated areas.

Here are some examples of damaging tornadic waterspouts that have moved over land:

  • In 2003, a tornadic waterspout came onshore and strengthened into an F3 tornado in the Florida Panhandle. It carved a 46-mile path of destruction up to 1 mile wide and caused over $15 million in damage.
  • In 2019, a powerful waterspout moved onshore in Shelter Cove, California, damaging around 40 homes and knocking down trees and power lines. It intensified into the equivalent of an EF2 tornado.
  • In 2020, two waterspouts moved ashore in New Jersey as approximately EF1 tornadoes, damaging homes and buildings.
  • In 2021, a waterspout came onshore and intensified into an EF2 tornado in the Florida Keys, damaging a school building and vehicles.

So while most waterspouts weaken over land, tornadic waterspouts can produce significant damage when they move ashore. They need to be taken seriously by meteorologists and public safety officials.

Key Factors That Allow Waterspouts to Reach Land

Several environmental factors and weather conditions make it more likely for waterspouts to traverse from water to land while remaining intact:

  • Strength of the parent thunderstorm – Tornadic waterspouts that form from severe thunderstorms are more likely to stay intact over land.
  • Wind direction – Onshore surface winds help push the waterspout inland.
  • Intensity of rotation – Faster rotation makes the vortex more resilient.
  • Water temperature – Warm water feeds more heat and moisture into the storm.
  • Land features – Moving over coastal plains or flat land allows waterspouts to maintain strength.
  • Transition speed – Quick transition from water to land gives less time for weakening.

So tornadic waterspouts forming in severe thunderstorms and moving rapidly onshore over flat land are most likely to reach land in their fully developed state.

Waterspout Safety Tips

If you see a waterspout approaching land, here are some important safety guidelines:

-Seek shelter in a secure building and move to an interior room or basement if possible. Abandon mobile homes which can be tossed in the winds.

-If shelter is not available, seek refuge in a sturdy vehicle with the seatbelt fastened. Put as many walls as possible between you and the waterspout.

-Avoid seeking shelter under bridges or overpasses which can be dangerous places in strong winds.

-If caught outside, find a low spot such as a ditch to lay flat, covering your head with your hands.

-Move away at a 90-degree angle from the waterspout's path. Do not try to outrun it.

-If boating, move perpendicular to the waterspout's motion and seek safe harbor if possible.

Waterspouts require vigilance as they can sometimes strike with minimal warning. Heeding weather forecasts and warnings can help ensure you take proper precautions. Overall, situational awareness is key to staying safe if one develops nearby and starts moving onshore.

Waterspouts vs. Tornadoes

While some waterspouts are essentially tornadoes over water, there are some key differences between tornadoes and fair weather waterspouts:

  • Formation – Tornadoes form from supercell thunderstorms while fair weather waterspouts often form along cumulus clouds.
  • Structure – Waterspouts have a spiral tube appearance whereas tornadoes look like a condensation funnel.
  • Intensity – Tornadoes are based on the EF-scale up to EF5 while fair weather waterspouts are typically EF0.
  • Rotation – Tornadoes rotate faster with winds over 100 mph vs. fair weather waterspouts at 40-55 mph.
  • Damage potential – Tornadoes can be extremely destructive while fair weather waterspouts rarely impact land with force.

However, it's important to remember that tornadic waterspouts have all the traits of a land tornado. They can cause substantial damage if they move ashore while still intensified.

Key Takeaways

  • Fair weather waterspouts commonly dissipate when they reach land, but tornadic waterspouts often maintain intensity.
  • Approximately 30% of Florida landfalls begin as tornadic waterspouts, remaining intact from water to land.
  • Tornadic waterspouts that move ashore can morph into violent tornadoes, persisting for over an hour.
  • The National Weather Service issues tornado warnings when waterspouts are expected to impact land with damaging winds.
  • Tornadic waterspouts capable of causing significant destruction can make it from water to land under the right weather conditions.
  • Situational awareness and following safety guidelines are key to protecting lives and property if a waterspout approaches shore.

So in summary, while not all waterspouts reach land, some clearly do. Tornadic waterspouts, in particular, can traverse from water to land while remaining fully developed and pose a threat similar to a land tornado. Remaining alert and weather-aware is important to stay safe if one nears the coastline


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