[Whitney Mobile Home Park]

On August 2nd a seabreeze-generated storm approached Gainesville from the SW, and from it a gust front shelf cloud appeared on my SW horizon above the trees. I grabbed my video camera and ran to my back yard and began recording its encroachment.

I do this often when storms near, as a way of trying to teach myself about storm dynamics, acceessory cloud types, their movements, and their various ... `habits.' Its just another way of `watching' the weather. Only, this way, you can sit in the comfort of your own home and watch it again and again to catch the things you missed the first time around. Its a means of familiarizing myself with these things where the assistance of an actual tutor or instructor is just not possible because they are unavailable in this area.

I went out expecting nothing more than the `usual' stuff. I began shooting from the left, panning to the right, from west to north to east, and back again -- occasionally zooming in for closeup detail on things I thought new, or different, or a little unusual to me. And when I was done, I turned off the camera, ready to head back inside before the obvious rains soon came.

At the moment that my finger pushed the OFF switch, I caught -- out of the corner of my eye -- what I thought was a `finger' growing to my left between some trees in the distance. My mind said `no, don't turn it off!' right at the moment that I did so. The impulse just wasn't quick enough to reach from my brain to my finger in time. At the same moment, I turned my head and looked directly at the area where I saw the `finger' while turning the camera back on. I was cursing myself for now having to wait for the camera to `get back into gear' again for recording, which seemed like an eternity. I also muttered a few curse words aloud, which of course, were not caught on the audio. When all the whirring and clicking and internal motions ceased, I hit the RECORD button and had to wait a few more seconds for the thing to kick in and actually begin recording. So, I lost a few seconds altogether. Meanwhile, I pointed the camera in the direction of the odd cloud formationand positioned the area of the `finger' within the viewfinder to make the most of the time lost waiting.

Now, at this time, I HAD no experience with tornadoes and I had no clue how they grew and developed or what they really looked like or what the dynamics of their formation were. This was before we even got the local SKYWARN program going, here.

The way in which the `tube' extended was kinda like a cat's claw. It didn't extend straight down along a straight line; it extended down at an angle and along a slight, fixed curve. At least, I'll say it became VISIBLE in that way, anyway. But, I could not detect, because of the distance, any detail which would indicate rotation -- either in the funnel, or in the surrounding clouds. I was expecting rotation -- somewhere for a funnel or tornado -- and detecting none, I was kinda confused.

My first thought was `Is that a funnel cloud? a tornado? NAW! No way! That's gotta be a scud or something that looks like a funnel cloud!' I was hoping it wasn't, since I lived in a trailer park ... Whitney Mobile Home Park two miles north up 441 from the Hwy. Patrol Station (at the intersection of US-441 and NW 34th). Tornadoes and mobile home parks mix all too well -- like a blender set on puree, sometimes.

Note how the tree line cuts off any view below the bottom of the funnel. Was what I was seeing just the visible portion of something that was longer, partially invisible below, and perhaps touching the ground somewhere behind the trees? There were no reports (that I had noted or heard of) of any tornadic type damage NW of Gainesville later that day or in the days that followed.

I was lucky to have caught that. Being 1) exactly between the notch in the trees like that and, 2) out from behind the clouds for the short time that it was...

Later, I wondered if the funnel wasn't what they called a `gust front funnel' that I'd heard mentioned before. But from what I understand in conversations with others, a gustnado, as they are called, is actually more akin to a large `dust devil' and is not an actual tornadic type wind. And you won't see condensation funnels in them as far as I am aware.

Anyway, a couple months later, I took the video clip to a Basic Spotter Training Class that was held here in Gainesville and I showed it to the Instructor, Fred Johnson -- who was from the NWS Office in Jacksonville. Fred who said that to him it looked like it was indeed a funnel cloud that I had caught.

Having never seen a funnel cloud much less a tornado with my own eyes before, I spent about ten whole minutes nervously debating whether or not to actually report this thing. I was worried that, in my inexperience, if this were NOT a funnel cloud, and I were to report it, that I might set up a scenerio for panic. And I did not want to be responsible for that if my call were to turn out to be wrong. I could just see the next day's headlines: `STUPID LOCAL MAN CRIES WOLF! MANY PANICKED RESIDENTS INJURED IN THE CONFUSION! EXECUTION SCHEDULED FOR LATER THIS AFTERNOON! My train of thought was along the lines of being as calm as possible, and first knowing for sure about what it was I was seeing. However, now that it's long afterwards, I think I should have reported it immediately as a `possible funnel cloud NW of my location' and that probably would have been more `responsible' of me. But I'm second guessing myself. (At the time, I had no idea what the NWS phone number was. We had no spotter program going, then.) Still, the experience showed me that I did have the capability to stop and think about what it was that I was looking at. As for the consequences of what I report, well ... I shouldn't worry about that (as much as I was worrying about it, anyway). If you are unsure, don't withhold it. It could still be real! Point the more experienced spotters towards it, at least, and let them make the call if you do not know. Now I know better, and I will not make the same mistake again.

Florida clouds are so much different from those in the midwest, and it makes identifying things really difficult when all the spotting books use the midwest storms for reference. Perhaps as this library grows, and I am able to find more things to photograph, this can eventually become a SOUTHEAST Area Storm Spotter's Glossary someday.

`Florida Style.' That's the word I'm looking for. Between the midwest and Florida storms...NOTHING looks the same. Everything is lower than in the midwest. Everything is...mushier. Wetter ... hidden in the rain and/or the residual precipitation in the air that forms a sort of `fog.' Everything is less sharp. There are more trees and other objects in the way here than there are in the midwest. You can't see a darned thing that you need to. Then, when you do see something, it looks nothing like the perfect examples you see in the spotter's guidebooks, and when you are finally able conclude it is an actual, serious event ... much time has been lost.

Look at the `wall cloud doppleganger' (as I'll call it) in FUNNEL14. It seems to have rounded, downward slanting striations to it. It is not a wall cloud, but part of the gust front shelf cloud. Its just been shaped a little by the outflow winds. But if you didn't see that it was part of a gust front shelf cloud, you might think that it was a wall cloud ... `Florida Style.' It was really strange for me to see that.

Later on in the video, zooms on the edges of the shelf cloud revealed upward curling `tips' to it, with easily noticeable counterclockwise (from my vantage point) motion to them ... a very obvious, speedy motion. This was common in this shelf cloud and occuring in more than one place. A pretty fantastic sight if you've never seen it before. And I had never seen it before. (I've since observed more storms and found that this is more common than I thought. You'd think these would have a name, but I've not been able to find any mention of them [yet].) But if you're good you'll note how the motion of the clouds was towards the edge, and down; not in, and back up. So, that suggests outflow ... a gust front. It's easy to see how a spotter in Florida could go nuts without a good, knowledgeable guide-person. Unfortunately, we don't have much of that here in Alachua County. The closest ones are about a hundred miles away. Just pick a direction.

Here and there, other areas of the storm had definite greenish tinges in them. This is supposed to be indicative of hail, though none was actually seen by myself that day. The RADAR on The Weather Channel showed that the storms intensified after they passed over Gainesville; and so, it is possible that places down the path experienced some hail later.

But the TWC RADAR also showed that what passed over me was part of a long, curved chain of cells that stretched through about four or five counties in northern Florida. Resembled a line echo pattern, but broken. Don't know if that's what it actually was. But this was all part of a sea breeze front passing eastwards.

The screen grabs show the cloud scenes before and up to when the funnel cloud was spotted and showing the approach of the shelf cloud [FUNNEL01 through FUNNEL06], and then zoom in closer to the funnel as it either moves behind part of the shelf cloud, or the shelf cloud moves in front of it (I couldn't tell which). [FUNNEL07 through FUNNEL13]. The rest depict the scenes after the funnel had disappeared.

The pan (from the backyard) begins on the left, towards just about due west, showing the approach of the shelf cloud and continues right. The funnel cloud position is to the northwest. How far away was the funnel? I have no idea. I'm not good at estimating distances of things in the sky yet, unfortunately. Perhaps a mile or less? But it was in the direction of the Deerhaven Power Plant from my position.

After the funnel disappeared, I moved north to the front of our trailer, and recorded that `wall cloud doppleganger' (the shelf cloud) from there, it looming above the trailers across the street.

Everything else, the `curls,' for example, were recorded from a little more east up the street.

I now believe that what I caught on tape was not at all a funnel cloud but just a look-a-like. It was an interesting learning experience, anyway, and a day full of neat-looking atmospherics. I'm not disappointed. I'm keeping this one up if if for no other reason than to show people how easily one can be fooled by scud and other similar accessory clouds.

This is also part of the fun of spotting. Every day is a learning experience. You always eee someting new or interesting or fascinating. And in the meantime, you learn.

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Created: October 14, 1997.
Last updated: June 06, 2000.

Mail to: Todd L. Sherman (afn09444@afn.org)
All Photos Copyright © 1997-2000 by Todd L. Sherman. All Rights Reserved.