By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
HAT ISLAND — A waterspout — a tornado that touches a body of water — formed near Hat Island on Saturday afternoon, giving witnesses a chance to view a phenomenon rare to this area.
The waterspout touched down on Possession Sound north of Hat Island, not far from Whidbey Island, shortly after 4 p.m., by most accounts. The funnel cloud was churning up the surface of the sound for up to 15 minutes, though it wasn’t drawing water upward the entire time, according to witnesses.
The waterspout was caused by unstable weather conditions that also produced lightning and hail around the Puget Sound region on Saturday, according to the weather service. There were no reports of any damage on land from the funnel cloud.
Ken Ohlsen of Tulalip photographed the waterspout and sent the image to The Herald. Other photos have been posted elsewhere online as well.
“It formed over the Clinton area, touched down between Clinton and Hat Island and was probably on the water for 10 for 15 minutes,” Ohlsen said.
He said he had time to get his camera, photograph the waterspout and then he and his wife watched it for a few more minutes.
“It stayed and swirled around for a very long time,” said his wife, Margie Eliason.
Waterspouts are very rare over the inland waters of Western Washington, said Danny Mercer, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Seattle.
The last one anyone at the weather service office remembers occurred 10 years ago or more, off Alki Beach in West Seattle, he said. Waterspouts are more frequent off the Washington coast, where one is reported every couple of years, Mercer said.
Tornadoes, while not common in the Northwest compared to other parts of the country, are more common in Western Washington than waterspouts, he said.
Tornadoes form more easily in a mix of warm and cold air, while over the water the temperature tends to be cooler, Mercer said.
“It’s a different process from what you see with a regular tornado,” he said. Tornadoes are caused when cold, dry air undercuts moist, warmer air and then lifts up. Waterspouts form in cool, unstable conditions.
“There’s not an existing warm air mass,” he said. A waterspout can be created when cold air gets moving and starts spinning in different directions.
“They’re almost always brief, a 10-minute deal and they lift up.”
Eliason said Saturday’s waterspout lasted close to 15 minutes altogether, though toward the end it wasn’t drawing water up through the cloud.
“You can’t always see the funnel all the way up, it depends on how much moisture is wrapped up in it,” Mercer said.
According to one witness report posted by the weather service, “Person saw waterspout about a quarter to half-mile northeast of Hat Island. Waterspout touched down for 30 seconds, then dissipated, reformed again for about 10 to 15 seconds then dissipated again. Water churned where the spout was for a few minutes…”
Eliason said two other funnel clouds started to form but didn’t make it to the water. “The other two tried to but didn’t quite make it,” she said. Some of the photos posted show at least one additional partly formed funnel.
Toward the end of the waterspout’s duration, “there was actually a skinny little thread, I’d say it went on for 5 minutes,” Eliason said.
Ohlsen, who said he travels extensively in his work, said he’s seen other waterspouts but never one here.
“I’ve seen quite a few in Florida,” he said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.