This past week, the National Weather Service confirmed that over a six-day period, at least three waterspouts touched down in Bourne, Sandwich and Falmouth.
Contrary to what one might think, waterspouts are not filled with water, do not spout, and, while unusual, are not unprecedented.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), waterspouts are “a whirling column of air and water mist” that develop on the surface of the water and work their way upward to cumulus clouds. They develop in high humidity and hover over, rather than suck up, liquid. If a waterspout moves onshore, as it did on Monday, October 29, the National Weather Service will issue a tornado warning.
Close relations to landspouts, waterspouts appear threatening, but move slowly, if at all. And with wind speeds averaging 50 miles per hour (mph) and lifespans of 20 minutes, they are not nearly as dangerous as their more ferocious sister, the tornado, whose wind speeds generally exceed 113 mph and have documented lifespans of up to three hours.
Monday morning’s waterspout, which touched down briefly in Woods Hole before dissipating, was characterized as a “brief and small” tornado by Alan E. Dunham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
It had an Enhanced Fujita Scale of 0 and a maximum wind speed of 60 to 65 mph: enough power to rattle the nerves of island commuters and lift four large wooden chairs into the air, according to an eyewitness at the Woods Hole Golf Club.
“It’s a little concerning when you are on a boat on the water and see a tornado coming at you,” said James T. Morse of Falmouth, who was aboard a Steamship Authority ferry at the time.
While the majority of waterspouts occur in the tropics, especially the Florida Keys, Cape Codders have periodically and historically reported sightings of waterspouts. For example, in an early published article, the Barnstable Patriot reported that on August 23, 1870, a “first class sensation” arrived in the shape of a waterspout that entered Barnstable Harbor, struck land, scattered wood, and moved beyond Sandy Neck into Cape Cod Bay.
In June 1871 and August 1880, two more waterspouts were reported southwest of Hyannis and off Bourne. With respect to the latter, the now-defunct Boston Advertiser described the waterspout as “a remarkable visitation” that levitated a dory like a “wisp of hay” and whirled around the grazing cow of Phineas Gibbs, “playfully picking her up” and dropping her “almost unharmed,” while the animal emitted a “series of terrific bellows.”
On August 19, 1896, three waterspouts were visible from Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, and in 1900, another waterspout was noticed “crossing the harbor” and “taking to land” in Hyannis, where it demolished fences, chimneys, stables, and roofs. According to the Barnstable Patriot, the storm drove a kitchen off its foundation while the children were eating breakfast and injured their mother by tossing her against the stove. And in 1902, another noteworthy waterspout visited Falmouth, moving like “a great freight train” from Falmouth Heights to Woods Hole, according to a young Ralph Ellis.
So, while most do not associate waterspouts and tornados with Cape Cod, they do happen here. “It’s just one of those things,” Mr. Dunham said. “It’s weather.”