Funnel cloud sighting near Steamboat Springs catches some by surprise
July 31, 2017
Dropping into Steamboat Springs down Rabbit Ears Pass and spotting a spinning cloud in the Yampa Valley was the last thing Becky Plummer expected.
Plummer was traveling back home to Craig after a visit to Oklahoma’s tornado country when she spotted the cloud. Plummer took photos of it at 10:44 a.m. Wednesday.
“My initial assessment is it is a funnel cloud,” said Andrew Lyons, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
He noted that the difference between a funnel cloud and a tornado is that a tornado touches the ground.
“I’m not seeing any debris or a dust cloud underneath it,” Lyons said.
While tornadoes are not common in the mountains, Lyons said funnel clouds are not necessarily unusual, but they are more common in the Uintah Basin in eastern Utah.
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He said they typically get one tornado report each year in the region.
Lyons said the funnel cloud likely formed as a result of a nearby thunderstorm and spinning air in the atmosphere. As air rose, the spinning increased.
“The more you stretch that tube of spinning air, the faster it’s going to spin,” Lyons said.
Steamboat meteorologist Mike Weissbluth agreed that it was likely a funnel cloud based on the spiral nature of the clouds.
“At first glance, I do not see a connection to the ground, so likely a funnel, and a beautiful one, at that,” Weissbluth said.
He said video of the cloud would help identify rotation and any indication of it connecting to the ground.
“Since the condensation in the funnel stops well above the ground, I would be looking for any dust at the ground underneath the funnel that would indicate an invisible connection,” Weissbluth said.
After looking at radar history for the time the photos were taken, Weissbluth said there were indications of upper-level forcing and likely a weak cool front moving over the area.
“The unstable atmospheric environment could have been induced to spin by the passing front, so a I would still guess a funnel,” Weissbluth said.