Funnel Cloud Look-A-Like
Odd-looking Downburst In Gainesville, Fla.
September 27, 1999
03:30 to 03:45 PM EDT
by Todd L. Sherman/KB4MHH




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[ICON: Alachua FreeNet]
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Severe Weather Event
In Gainesville, FL
Sept. 27, 1999.

Alachua County

Much thanks to Michael Masters and Middle Tennessee SKYWARN for allowing us the use of thier rotating SKYWARN pog graphic.

[Event Animation]

At about 3:30pm EDT, I was pulling into the parking lot at Wal-Mart on NW 13th Street (near Sam's) to do some shopping. (I was looking for weed killer spray for some yard work I needed to do, actually.) As I got out of the car, I looked to the southwest and noticed some very strange cloud happenings going on. I ran to the farthest north edge of the parking lot to get a better view. What I saw was a tubular column of scud clouds, shaped like a "pillar" from the front of a Greek?/Roman? temple or something, connected to the bottom of the cloud base, and extending down behind trees on the horizon, as if perhaps touching ground behind them. I quickly ran back to the car, grabbed my digital camera, and began to take these photos. The lighter background area behind this event appeared slightly greenish-blue for a time just before I started actually taking photos.

I WISH I'd used the highest possible resolution on the camera, thinking back on the situation. I'd probably have much more detail to examine these photos with. However, it was a split-second decision made on the scene. Hi-res would have only allowed me 8 photos; medium resolution - 33 photos; low resolution - 64 photos. I chose the middle resolution because I didn't know how long this might go on, or how many photos I might have to take. Medium resolution allowed me a fair number of photos at the next-best resolution. And this was an older-model digital camera.

This whole thing lasted about 15 or 20 minutes.

I estimate the positioning of the event to be approximately over the Westwood Park area, perhaps 2 or 3 miles southwest of my position at the Wal-Mart parking lot, and maybe 2 miles east of I-75. (Bob Pedigo/KF4TMJ and his daughter were in the Archer Road/I-75 area, and Bob tells me that there were some very heavy rains and strong wind in that area at that time.)

There were no Watches or Warnings posted by the NWS before, during, or after the event. Sea breeze fronts were converging over Gainesville just a few miles east of I-75 at the time; but nothing severe was expected for the day, nor seen on RADAR. And the worst that had appeared on RADAR at any one time, as far as I'm aware, was lots of dark green - but no yellows or reds.

I was out of breath from running all around the parking lot, and tried to get on the local 146.820 ham radio repeater and report what I was seeing. However, everyone still being at work, I got not much response at all. As well, while there was a payphone nearby, I neglected to use it to make a spotter report to the NWS because my mind was thinking I needed a quarter. However, the number is an 800 one... (Sigh!) That's what adrenalin will do to you, I guess. But a phone was right there a jog away. [Hangs his head in shame.])

I did run back to the car trunk and grab my binoculars when the apparent "tube" shape appeared, and there did appear to be scud-like material fast rotating about the tube. Yet another thing which served to just confuse me further. What the hell was this thing that I was looking at? I wish I'd had the video camera. I could at least go back and see if there was any rotation more apparent in the cloud base above the "tube," where the air was rushing towards, or away, from things, and perhaps be able to make a better judgement. The camera would have also allowed me to zoom in in places. You can take the camera with you in the car 60 days in a row - "just in case" - and on the day that you decide to leave it at home, THAT'S when something is going to happen. Never fails.

After a while, the "event" became overtaken by the nearby rain area, and the goings-on became hidden, losing all visible form.

I called the NWS after I got home, and "Bob" spoke of "axis"-this and "convergence"-that, and seemed to think it possible that something could be going on, but he couldn't be sure, either.

Bill Quinlan, Chief Meteorologist at TV-20 here in Gainesville, doesn't think it possible that it was a tornado. There were no watches or warnings put out that day, and to him there just didn't seem to be anything happening that day which would support such severe type activity.

I sent copies of these photos to Fred Johnson at NWS-JAX to look at, too. He came down here on the 29th to give a Basic Spotter Training Course. I was hoping Fred could go back and look through the archived RADAR data of the day and tell me if anything supports tornado formation, or a downburst of some form. However, he advised me that they don't archive RADAR data of more than, say, a few hours in the past. Anything after that gets deleted.

I've received a number of theories and suggestions from people as to what this could have been. They include: optical effects such as a crepuscular ray (nnnnnno!), or a cloud shadow (mmm...possible, but I don't think so); cloud/scud tags or fragments (now you're getting there); trailing scud (fractus stratus) from a rainshower (okay); a rainshaft (more likely, I think); rain-cooled / undercutting outflow (maybe); a gustnado (eh); an actual funnel (mee-zuh no tinkin' so); a landspout (nah); and an actual tornado. I'm liking the downburst theory better.

But you'll note that all throughout, I'm deliberately cautious about what I say I might be seeing. I'm deliberately cautious of that word "tornado." I want to be sure...

Still, personally, based upon the fact that there is/was no data to support severe activity, I think this was likely just a non-event. Just a downburst with lots of scud. It just looked pretty scary. However, it does make for another good example of something that can fool spotters. Foir this reason, I leave this here as a perfect example of how cloud formations can LOOK like something and FOOL us. There's not enough example of that in training materials, in my personal opinion.

Remember: You must click on any scaled-down image in order to see a larger, more detailed photo.


03:31 PM EDT - Is this a wall cloud? Not easily visible in this photo is the right side of a fat tower column extending up into the sky, starting just above the right side of the "wall cloud look-a-like" (what I'll call it for now, for lack of knowing for sure what is going on, here) behind the lower accessory clouds in the way. Could that be a "tuba" descending from the center of the "wall cloud?" Or is it just forming scud rushing up into an updraft box?


03:32 PM EDT - Nawp. Nawp. "Tuba" starting to dissapate. Things cleared up. Looks more more like just updraft scud in an inflow box, now.


03:33 PM EDT - Things starting to happen beneath the "box" again. Now we have more descended scud activity going on.


03:34 PM EDT - Its not easily visible in this image, but things seem to be getting awfully close to the ground behind the buildings in the distance, especially near where the updraft and downdraft areas meet.


03:34 PM EDT - That finger of scud is getting awfully long and pretty darned low to the ground. Objects on horizon block any views of the actual ground in the distance.


03:35 PM EDT - That's NOT lookin like normal "scud" anymore. Now its starting to look like a "bent finger." (Does scud do that?) To the eye, this is a well-contrasted sight. There was what appeared to be a column descended out of the cloud base, at high angle to it, then the column bent nearly straight downwards, towards the ground. Is it touching ground? You can't tell because of the things in the way on the horizon. Is it a rain shaft? If so, that's the "tightest" rain shaft I've ever seen. But a rain shaft which suddenly decides to bend midway down? Weird. Hmm. ...Drops rain for a minute while standing in one place, then the area starts to move, perhaps? Would that explain it? (Here, and in the next photo, I increased the camera's picture-taking brightness level in an attempt to try to pull out things going on beneath the cloud base better. So, things are actually much darker than they appear here, giving one the false impression that the sky was much brighter than it was.)


03:35 PM EDT - Okay. So now its a "scud pillar" extending straight up and down, towards the ground??? What's going on here, folks? If this is a "downdraft" or a "microburst," its an awfully tightly constricted one. I looked a little more closely and here it DID appear as if there was small scud orbiting the periphery of this thing. (Camera brightness level is still in increased mode, here.)


03:39 PM EDT - Several minutes later. (Camera brighness level back to normal when camera turned off to save batts, then turned back on.) The funnel, if still there, is not obvious anymore. Now things are back to looking like updraft scud. But, its all so low.


03:40 PM EDT - Same observation. (Has anyone noticed how the low clouds in the foreground are increasingly getting in the way of all detail in the upper sky?)


03:41 PM EDT - Looking like just an inflow box, again.


03:42 PM EDT - The rainy downdraft area is beginning to encroach upon things, now, making things start to get hazy. Rain area now also starting to encroach upon the parking lot. Some lightning off to the left out of view of photo. Air still being dragged up into that area ahead, as evidenced by the scud.


03:44 PM EDT - Starting to rain on the parking lot, now. Lightning getting closer, too. Better find cover. Rain area also overtaking the updraft area. Things starting to look fuzzy over there, now.

If this was not an actual tornadic event, well, I'm neither embarrassed nor worried 'bout my reputation. I think in this case things looked pretty darned convincing enough. 8^) A very easy mistake, I'm sure most would agree. The only thing that leaves me to doubt is the fact that the weather situation at the time did not seem to warrant this kind of activity. If there are any professionals out ther who can look at this day's archived weather and RADAR data and tell me if there was anything going on that might warrant a tornado, or some other event like a downburst here in Gainesville, I'd appreciate it.


Animation of Still Photos. Note that these photos were taken over a period of 15 minutes time. Animation by Dan White.

Severe Weather Event In Gainesville
Todd L. Sherman/KB4MHH
Gainesville, Alachua Co., Fla.
E-mail: afn09444@afn.org
Page Created: 4am EDT, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1999.
Last updated: September 30, 1999.
(Corrected error in image sequences.)

© Copyright 1999 by Todd L. Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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