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Shear Funnels: When Michigan Weather Does Strange Things jAN 2 09

We”re barely into winter and already I”m looking ahead to storm season 2009. That may seem strange, but for me it”s only natural. I”m a storm chaser—an identity I take pride in because of the intense passion and personal investment it reflects—and my obsession with severe weather by no means goes into hibernation when the snows fly. Rather, it seems to increase. I dream of cloud turrets muscling up through the springtime troposphere, flattening at the tops into the anvils of warlike cumulonimbi. I long for the feel of moist air pumping in all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, and of warm southeast winds spiraling into deep low-pressure systems moving in from the west. Believe me, the kind of itch I”ve got keeps me scratching all year long.

That”s not entirely impractical, either. Last year, my first storm chase was on January 7. A month later, on February 5, my chase partner and I were back on the road. Both events turned out to be significant tornado outbreaks which reached surprisingly far north. They just weren”t Michigan events.

Michigan most certainly has its share of violent weather, though, and it can come at times when you feel sure that the thunderstorm machine has shut down for the year. Still, most of our big weather occurs from April through June, and then again, more conservatively, around late September through October. Those are the times when moisture, large temperature contrasts with height, jet stream support, and wind shear are likeliest to come together in the finely tuned combination necessary for derechoes, supercells, and tornadoes.

During those times, even if we”re not getting severe weather, every once in a while we casino on-line can get something pretty strange.

One day in the middle of June last year, sitting in my living room recliner, I happened to glance out the sliding glass door to my balcony and did a double-take. Snaking sideways off of a low deck of clouds half a mile away was a perfectly formed shear funnel. There it was—long, sinuous, a beautiful example of what can happen when exactly the right conditions preside. A product of wind shear and condensation near the level of the cloud base, the funnel presented no danger. Not that I”d have wanted to run into it while parasailing, but it lacked the stuff necessary to become a tornado. Its fascination didn”t diminish, though, nor did its aesthetic appeal. You just don”t see one of these babies every day, and this one was a beauty.

The funnel must have existed for a while before I noticed it, and it persisted for a good five minutes or so after—plenty of time for me to grab my camera and snap a few photos. The two images here are the best of the lot. Why am I sharing them with you now, in the middle of the winter? To be frank, because I wanted a break from snow-and-ice photos. Because I thought that you, too, might appreciate something a little different, and shear funnels surely are that. And because I thought you and I could both use a reminder that warmer months lie ahead. They may not be rounding the corner quite yet, but they”re not all that far down the road.

Michigan is not “Big Sky Country” like the American West, but the view here still includes up as well as down. When the snow cover finally melts under the rays of a warmer sun, keep your eyes on the sky as well as the burgeoning countryside. The atmosphere is a landscape in its own right, and sometimes the scenery will surprise you.



Written by Dave.