Tuesday afternoon, Twitter friend Jennifer Briney (@JenBriney) was looking skyward, and observed a remarkable and rare phenomenon. Just prior to 2:15 PM, Jen grabbed these images of a rotating funnel in the sky above Arlington Heights, Massachusetts. This phenomenon developed just ahead of the incoming shield of steady rain. I've included Jennifer's description with each photograph:
"Just saw this in Arlington Heights. Can't be a tornado; what was it?"
" It was definitely spinning. Here's a different zoomed shot; I wish I took video!"
So...what was it? My first thought was just some strange lighting against the cloud, playing tricks on the eye, but I asked Jennifer if it had depth and was surely spinning, and she answered yes to both. Additionally, the final photo of stretching out reflects this WAS a column of air. Given the lack of a strong, "convective" (thunderstorm) system, a true tornado seems unlikely, though this certainly is pendant to the cloud, which is a necessary characteristic of a tornado. Another phenomenon that can resemble a tornado but usually never touches down is a "cold air funnel," which develops as a result of very cold air aloft and warmer air near the ground, producing a rapid, rotating, rising column of air that resembles a tornado but often doesn't touch down. The issue with this solution is that Tuesday's air aloft simply wasn't that cold, and the "lapse rate" - or, temperature difference - through the atmosphere seems insufficient to produce a cold air funnel.
This leaves us with what appears to be a rare and often unobserved - and, as best I know, non-classified - feature that developed in the skies of the northern Boston suburb of Arlington Tuesday afternoon. Likely some sort of inflow to the cloud, definitely spinning per Jennifer's observation, and clearly "roping out" as it fell apart in the final photo of the sequence. This is further proof of two undeniable facts: 1) There are still phenomena that are not officially classifiable in our atmosphere, 2) Any of us can document these if we are observant enough, and 3) We will undoubtedly continue to see more such phenomena as the explosion of camera phone technology continues.
So...THANK YOU, Jennifer, for keeping me in mind when you saw this, and thank you to one and all who stay alert to the world around us.