A sailplane pilot over the weekend was soaring along in his motor glider near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in smooth air when the variometer started to sing. Unbeknownst to pilot David Evans, he was riding a tornado aloft. And he even captured the event on video.
You might know that this wasn’t a bona fide twister. It was more like a starter tornado—known as a landspout. And nothing bad happened, though we would counsel keeping a far greater distance from these whirlwinds, but in Evans’ case, he wasn’t aware of the phenomenon until the funnel cloud had already formed.
A landspout looks like a mini tornado, and it pretty much is, in that it’s a fast-spinning cyclonic cloud. A close cousin of the landspout is the waterspout. These form over water where landspouts, as the name conveys so well, form over land. Whereas tornados are associated with strong convective activity, landspouts can be hatched over dry land in relatively benign conditions, as is the case in the video. The power of a landspout is also far less than that of a convection-spawned tornado, with maximum wind speeds of around 70 mph, which equates to around an EF-0 tornado. Still, they are powerful enough to wreak havoc with objects, people and critters. Waterspouts, by the way, can capsize good-sized boats. They are to be avoided, as are landspouts.
Such mini twisters are rare in Oklahoma, which is well known for their full-sized cousins. But an area much farther north, just east of Denver, Colorado, is the landspout capital of the world because, according to meteorologists at Penn State University, the terrain “is naturally ripe for landspout formation because air flowing over the local rugged terrain can lead to the low-level convergence and circulation needed for landspout formation.”
Which is what we’re seeing here. Cool, yes, but have we mentioned that it’s way too close for comfort!
Video credit: David T. Evans