Clear Air Tornadoes
Is there something like a clear air tornado? I witnessed
something that resembled a tornado but the top dissipated into a
clear sky. The funnel was a hazy gray color with some counter clock
wise rotation and the funnel did not appear to reach the ground.
Lateral movement was limited, if any. I saw this on the afternoon of
August 22, 2007 slightly southwest of Caldwell, KA. There were only
a few, scattered puffy white clouds in an otherwise clear sky. The
air temperature was in the 90's and there was a moderate wind from
the southwest. I could not associate any wind emanating from the
area of the funnel.
What you describe sounds like a dust devil. They typically occur on hot,
clear days as air warmed by the sun-heated ground rises. They make nice
swirling columns, but their wind strength is significantly less than a
See, for instance,
http://www.gc.maricopa.edu/earthsci/imagearchive/dust_devils.htm (nice pictures
and a little explanatory test);
http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF2/227.html (brief, readable text description)
You can see for yourself if this is what you saw.
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Wyoming
What you saw sounds like a dust devil. These begin from very
large horizontal differences in temperature of the ground, for instance
the difference in temperature between a grassed area and bare soil
under strong sunlight conditions. They can usually only form during
light wind conditions, so the dust devil may not move or move only
slowly with light wind speeds. Dust devils usually dissipate soon
after leaving the proximity of the horizontal temperature difference,
but if there is a long horizontal distance over which those differences
occur, the dust devil can last for a long time.
I saw a good example of large, long-lasting dust devils just north of
the Columbia River in central Oregon in summer 1992. The difference
in horizontal temperature came from the cool Columbia River and the
very dry hot sand just north of the river. 100 foot tall dust devils
formed and moved eastward along the river with the light westerly wind.
David R. Cook
Climate Research Section
Environmental Science Division
Argonne National Laboratory
With only the qualitative observations such as lifetime, size, etc.,
you describe it is not possible to make a meteorological diagnosis, but
there is a lower atmospheric disturbance called a "Dust Devil". They
are not associated with damaging high winds nor with a long lifetime,
but do behave the way you describe.
Click here to return to the Weather Archives
Update: June 2012