Did you see this headline in the Washington Post on May 1? “Dust devil hurls tumbleweeds skyward along Washington state highway.” The story was about a swirling mass of tumbleweeds 100 feet above ground snagged by a giant dust devil on a highway near Richland.
A month before that story, another type of weather whirlwind event put Richland in the news: a landspout tornado that hit just north of the city.
Neither Dorothy nor Toto were seen at either event. Thanks to geography and climate, the Inland Northwest is more likely to experience dust devils and landspouts than the supercell tornadoes we associate with Kansas.
Dust devils and landspouts are spinning, rising columns of air that don’t reach the same fury as regular tornadoes. Even so, they can still pack a punch and put on a good show, as all the media attention demonstrates.
Dust devils can literally come out of the blue, developing on clear spring or summer days when the ground is warm and the air aloft is cool. Warm air rises into cooler air above, creating a vortex that spins from the ground upward. Although most dust devils that zip across open fields, highways and parking lots are 10 to 30 feet tall, they can extend higher than 100 feet and move as fast as a car on a highway.
The dust devil that made big news recently was strong enough to carry jumbo tumbleweeds high into the air and fling them out like confetti. Another more powerful dust devil made headlines a year ago when it yanked an inflatable amusement house from the ground near Yakima and carried it through the air with four high school students inside. Fortunately, no students were killed but they did sustain injuries.
As for landspouts, you may recall hearing about one that struck near Richland on March 31. Like dust devils, landspouts are ground-based whirlwinds that spin upward, as opposed to true tornadoes that spin downward from storm clouds. But where dust devils typically develop on clear days, a landspout usually forms with the help of a cumulus cloud above it. The narrow tube-shaped funnel stretching upward into the cloud’s updraft travels between 40 mph and 200 mph. Not surprisingly, it resembles a small tornado more than a dust devil, and behaves more like one as well.
Landspouts and dust devils vary in size and strength. Eastern Washington tends to be dry, so loose dust, dirt and even tumbleweeds get whisked into the air, particularly by dust devils. Keep your eye on the horizon in the coming weeks – or even an open ball park – as the Inland Northwest enters dust-devil season. If you see an impressive whirlwind, snap some pictures and send them our way at the email address below.
Nic Loyd is a Washington meteorologist. Linda Weiford is a writer in Moscow, Idaho, who’s also a weather geek. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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