Does a waterspout over the ocean contain fresh or salt water?

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Does a waterspout over the ocean contain fresh or salt water?
funnel of water extends between ocean below and cloud above

Waterspout photo from NOAA Photo Library

A waterspout is a whirlwind that forms over water, beneath a cumulus cloud. Before you see the waterspout, you may see a funnel cloud hanging from the bottom of the cloud. This funnel cloud is made of pure water as it is formed from water vapor in the air that condenses into liquid droplets.

A waterspout forms when the rotating column of air reaches the surface and draws up water. Over the ocean, the water droplets in the vortex will be salt water. Very few water droplets enter the cloud from the water spout in comparison to the number of drops already in the cloud. So, any rain would not taste salty.

Waterspouts are common where there are frequent thunderstorms over large bodies of water. The Florida Keys, the Gulf of Mexico, and Chesapeake Bay are common locations for waterspouts, but they also occur over the Great Lakes.

These tornadic waterspouts are generally much weaker than the weakest tornado, but if you seen one in a boat, consider it dangerous. To avoid the danger, steer your boat at right angles to the spout’s movement. If you can’t get out of the way, put on your lifejacket (which you should already have on) and protect yourself from flying debris.

Steven A. Ackerman and Jonathan Martin are professors in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UW-Madison, are guests on the Larry Meiller‘s WHA-AM radio show the last Monday of each month at 11:45 a.m.