By Jenny Neyman
Robin Lipinski is used to the unusual when looking out over Cook Inlet. Endlessly variable vistas are part of why he lives where he does, about three miles north of the Anchor River, in Anchor Point, overlooking the inlet.
“You never know what you’re gonna see out there, either ship traffic or weather,” Lipinski said.
In his seven years in that spot, or even his time in the Coast Guard, commercial fishing or as a charter fishing operator, what he saw on the water Wednesday afternoon was a first for him.
A 30-foot-diamater waterspout, whirling to life midinlet and sweeping toward shore, gorging itself on water sucked from the surface, spewing spray 40 to 50 feet in the air. If it had been on land, Lipinski figures it was strong enough to rip tin off a roof.
“It was a big white funnel that was hanging off the bottom of the cloud, then you could see it moving toward the east. The water was really just boiling,” Lipinski said. “If there were any little minnows on the surface of the water they went for a ride.”
He had been hanging shingles on his house Wednesday around 3:30 p.m., enjoying a rare period of fall warmth and calm air. Out on the water, however, conditions were not as mild.
“One side of the inlet was sunny, the other side of the inlet where the funnel was coming from was one of those big cumulonimbus clouds — one of those big thunderhead-looking things. It was actually pretty warm, and I think that’s why it formed. I think it was hot meeting cold,” Lipinski said. “It’s this time of year, I guess, when the weather’s changing. It’s winter one day, summer the next.”
Lipinski saw a tornado once, while stationed in North Carolina in the Marine Corps. Growing up on a farm in Montana, he’s seen plenty of dust devils, spitting to life across a field and disintegrating a few seconds later. While stationed with the Coast Guard on the Oregon Coast he remembers seeing three waterspouts, but all were so small and far offshore that he needed binoculars to get a good look at them. And none lasted as long as this one.
“What was fun was it was a long one — I’d say between 10 to 15 minutes it lasted. It got bigger and bigger and when the white tip of the funnel hit the water it was like someone hit a light switch — done. And about 30 seconds after the water on the surface was still agitated, you could see the spray still,” he said. “All I could think of was if I was halibut fishing and anchored right there I might want to pull my anchor when I saw that thing coming at me.”
He figures the waterspout was about three miles offshore, two miles south of the Anchor River when it finally dissipated. It lasted long enough for he and a friend who had stopped by his house, Mike Sizelove, to enjoy a good show, and even conduct a drawn-out conversation about it.
“We watched it and I said, ‘Mike you got a camera?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I got one in the house.’ So we watched it a few more minutes and slowly see it moving. And finally he says, ‘I’m gonna go home and get it.’”
Sizelove got in his truck and started driving the mile south toward his house, but the waterspout touched down and vaporized before he got there. Still, he got a good view, one he felt compelled to embellish.
“You really want to make this story good? I saw three salmon, a sea otter and a buoy being sucked up and dropped again,” Sizelove said. “The otter could have been trying to juggle the buoy.”
Even without the invented details, what he did see was plenty interesting to watch, he said. He’s never seen a waterspout like that in the 37 years he’s lived in Alaska.
“There was a definite funnel, which we’ve never seen before, and the water was in a circular motion below the funnel and being sucked up off the surface of the inlet. It was pretty dynamic to look at,” Sizelove said.
Dave Stricklan, a hydrometeorological technician at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast office in Anchorage, said waterspouts are unusual, but not unheard of, in Alaska.
“It’s kind of rare. We don’t see a whole lot of them,” he said. “It’s is not anything big, like the tornadoes you get down in the Lower 48. They are pretty small, and waterspouts are more reported out along the (Aleutian) chain, a few near the Bethel area, stuff like that. I would think there’s probably more out there that’re not reported because of the lack of population.”
Waterspouts in Alaska are typically not very big and don’t last long. Though he hadn’t heard of Wednesday’s event off of Anchor Point, Stricklan said it is plausible for a waterspout to be 30 feet in diameter and last 15 or so minutes.
“Usually they’ll touch down and then they’ll disappear, they’re not long-term types of things. They can be five minutes, they can be 20 minutes, they’re very unpredictable,” he said.
Tornado season in the Lower 48 is typically spring, where a combination of moisture and warming temperatures makes the atmosphere unstable. In Alaska, unstable atmosphere can occur spring through fall. Last week a low-pressure system was moving through Cook Inlet, sparking a few thunder-and-lighting storms, as well.
“We’ve got several low pressure systems just kind of rotating through here. There’s cold air aloft and it’s not real warm on the surface, but temperatures aloft are fairly cold, that makes it real unstable. You can get this in the spring, you can get it in the fall, you can get it in the middle of the summer, too, at times,” he said.
If anyone sees an unusual weather event, such as a waterspout, dust devil or thunder-and-lighting storm, Stricklan asks observers to report it to the forecast office and submit photos whenever possible. Information for contacting the office is available on the National Weather Service Anchorage Forecast Office website, http://pafc.arh.noaa.gov.
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