What is the difference between a tornado and a waterspout?

Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 10:18 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 14, 2023 at 11:49 AM CDT
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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) - Several waterspouts were spotted on Lake Michigan on Wednesday, and they were quite the sight. Several photos and videos captured an eye-catching waterspout off the coast of Racine, Wisconsin.

Waterspouts form a bit differently than a typical tornado. A tornado forms from a parent supercell thunderstorm. It starts with rotation in the cloud that eventually reaches the ground.

A waterspout, however, forms with rotating air near the surface of the water, and then connects up to the base of a cumulus cloud.

RELATED: How do landspout tornadoes differ from typical tornadoes?

Other than marine interests, these typically don’t pose a threat unless they move over land, becoming a tornado.

During Wednesday’s setup, the waterspouts formed with cool air moving over the relatively warm waters of Lake Michigan.

There were light, converging winds at the surface which created the rotation just above the waters of Lake Michigan, allowing the relatively warm air to rise, picking up mist from the surface as the column of rotating air worked its way up to the base of the cumulus cloud.

While there were showers present over the lake, this was considered more of a “fair weather” waterspout situation.

Tornadic waterspouts happen when a tornado moves from land to water, or when a supercell thunderstorm produces a tornado over open water. These are usually much stronger than fair-weather waterspouts.

Typically waterspouts only last a few minutes to a half hour before dissipating.