Lake Michigan waterspouts, people along shore capture sight

Waterspouts out over Lake Michigan were spotted Wednesday morning, Sept. 13. 

"I was like ‘I think that’s a water tornado!’ And we thought no way," said Patrick Beilfus, who saw the waterspout from Racine. 

Beilfus was visiting from Chicago. 

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"I didn’t believe my eyes but it’s definitely something to see though," Beilfus said. 

A waterspout is a whirling column of air and water mist and forms most frequently during the months of August, September and October over the Great Lakes when the water is at its warmest level of the year. 

"The lake is at its warmest pretty much right now, surface temperature is low 70s at its highest, and the air temperature is cooler. This morning it was 50s and 60s. So you add that plus a little upper level instability and you spin these things up and they develop up from the water," said FOX6 Chief Meteorologist Rob Haswell.

"I didn’t think it was real. I even called my dad and everything," Beilfus said. "I have this old memory of that movie Twisters or something. I just figured out what a water spout was with him when I was a little kid." 

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FOX6 News viewer Martha C. took this photo of a waterspout at North Bay in Racine

How waterspouts form

Waterspouts occur when cold air moves across the lakes causing large temperature differences between the warm water and the overriding cold air. They can last as little as a minute or two or as long as 20 minutes or more -- and tend to move slowly at speeds of 10 to 15 knots.

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Waterspouts fall into two categories: 

  • Fair weather waterspouts usually form along the dark flat base of a line of developing cumulus clouds. This type of waterspout is generally not associated with thunderstorms. A fair weather waterspout develops on the surface of the water and works its way upward. By the time the funnel is visible, a fair weather waterspout is near maturity. Fair weather waterspouts form in light wind conditions, so they normally move very little.
  • Tornadic waterspouts develop downward in a thunderstorm.

While Wednesday morning's waterspouts were associated with some thunderstorm activity, they are more akin to the fair weather type of waterspout given the calmer, non-severe conditions.

If a waterspout moves onshore, the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, as some of them can cause significant damage and injuries to people. Typically, fair weather waterspouts dissipate rapidly when they make landfall, and rarely penetrate far inland.