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Six freaky and terrifying kinds of severe weather

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Monday, February 24, 2014, 6:27 AM -

From earthquakes, to wildfires, to hurricanes, and everything in between, we accept that the natural world can be hostile. 

But sometimes, Mother Nature grants a rare, and terrifying, new form to a common disaster.

Take, for instance, Mt. Sinabung in Indonesia, which erupted so strongly earlier in February that it actually spawned dark tornadoes.

It was easily explainable as a sort of dust devil, but scientific explanations don't at all take away from how striking, and a little scary, those meteorological curve balls can be.

Here are six freaky, and frightening, examples of severe weather or natural disasters that look like they were put together on a sci-fi blockbuster budget.

Volcanic Lightning

Contrary to what you might imagine, the incandescent shot below is not part of a Swedish Viking metal album, although we would forgive you if that was your original assumption.

Image: Oliver Spalt [www.artweise.de/] / Wikimedia Commons

Image: Oliver Spalt [www.artweise.de/] / Wikimedia Commons

It was shot by photographer Oliver Spalt in 1995, at a safe distance from Indonesia’s Mt. Rinjani, one of the archipelago nation’s many, many volcanoes. 

Volcanic eruptions are catastrophic and awe-inspiring enough, so the addition of a few bolts of lightning kind of seems like overkill, but they do happen, although the process that creates them is not 100 per cent understood.

They could be a by-product of what meteorologists call 'dirty thunderstorms.' The lightning is produced by a similar process as in a regular thunderstorm, where friction between particles creates a static charge. Only instead of high-altitude ice particles, it’s ash and rock particles that create the charge.

Although volcanic eruptions have been observed by mankind for millennia (often via panicked backward glances), scientific study of them has only really been around for a couple of centuries.

It seems the lightning phenomenon is one of the last aspects of volcanoes to be studied in great detail, with definitive research into “dirty thunderstorms” being released only in 2007.

And even then, the researchers said there was still a lot more research needed to figure out exactly how what sparks these incredible bolts.

Fire tornados

We’ve already talked about the phenomenon of volcanic tornadoes – dust devils of smoke and ash. Now meet their blazing counterparts, Fire whirls:

This awesome shot was captured by Australian film maker Chris Tangey in 2012, while scouting filming locations in that country’s Northern Territory. He said it sounded like the roar of a fighter jet as it scoured the parched landscape, and it was one of several.

Fire whirls can occur due to a combination of wind sheer and intense heat, sucking flames upward into a towering flame vortex.

Rural firefighters tasked with battling wildfires dread them – although they typically don’t last long, they can spread hot debris beyond the immediate area. They’re not really all that rare, just not often photographed, at least not until recent years (See below for one from the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo).

Despite their appearance, they’re not considered true tornadoes, rather being more like dust devils … except for one, terrifying exception in Australia.

After painstakingly collecting the evidence, researchers announced in 2012 that they’d discovered the first evidence of an actual fire tornado – emitted from a thunderstorm, itself generated from the intense smoke of the 2003 wildfires in Canberra, the Australian capital

And like a true tornado, its effects were devastating. Tall trees were snapped in half, roofs were ripped off of houses, and vehicles were picked up and tossed by the burning twister’s estimated horizontal winds of around 250 km/h

Australia, like Canada and the United States, is one of the most wildfire-prone nations in the world. It isn't comforting to know that aside from the risk of death and damage to property, the fires can spawn a pillar of flame powerful enough to rip your home apart.

Heat bursts

Heat bursts are unseen blasts of hot air that can turn a tranquil, temperate evening into a sweltering windstorm.

They don’t happen often, but when they do, they can cause the temperature to spike by several degrees in a very short period of time. One documented event in South Africa was marked by temperatures skyrocketing from around 20°C to more than 40°C in just five minutes.

Other documented changes are less drastic, but still noticeable. Here’s an example from Kansas:

The history books are filled with extreme, but poorly documented cases. An unconfirmed (and unlikely) reported heat burst in Iran supposedly drove temperatures up to 87°C, resulting in deaths and liquefied asphalt. Other examples, again, from places with no official weather stations, caused car radiators to boil over and crops to be flash-dried in the fields.

It’s not aliens, and although rare, they are relatively easy to explain. The phenomenon, similar to a downburst, begins when a thunderstorm weakens over a layer of dry air and, though a complicated series of meteorological processes, the falling air gets hotter and drier as momentum carries it down to the earth.

Once it hits the ground, the air is dispersed in all directions, producing winds in excess of 120 km/h in some cases – more than enough to damage homes.

Here’s a video explanation:

Most cases seem to happen at night, don’t last long, and are more common in the thunderstorm season of the spring and summer months. Which is a shame, because given how ridiculously cold this winter has been in many parts of Canada, we wouldn’t mind a moderate heat burst here and there.

At the very least it would get rid of these mountains of snow.

NEXT PAGE: Rogue waves reach 10 storeys tall

Rogue Waves

Fans of The Deadliest Catch know what these are, thanks to one episode of the popular reality show when one of the crab-fishing vessels, the Aleutian Ballad, was put in dire straits by one.

That ship survived being struck by an 18 m wave, although dozens of ships in recent decades, and perhaps hundreds or thousands through the centuries, may owe their final fates to rogue waves.

The Aleutian Ballad wave wasn’t even remotely the tallest ever recorded. That dubious honour goes to a 34 m wave, about 10 storeys high, that slammed into an American tanker in 1933, and scientists have calculated a theoretical maximum height of 60 m, reaching about chest-height on the Statue of Liberty.

They’ve been seen in Canadian waters as well, with the famed Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner having to 'surf' a 27 m monster near Newfoundland in 1995. That same year, a similar-sized wave became one of the first to be officially recorded after almost swamping an oil rig in the North Sea.

Even so, they were regarded as almost mythical occurrences until the 1990s. Since then, they’ve been studied in greater detail, but although scientists have a good idea of how many of them form – in some cases through storm wave interactions, in other cases along powerful ocean currents – there's still a few grey areas. 

Even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seems to hedge its bets in its own explanation.

And as scientists slowly unravel the mystery behind these waves, and how climate change interacts with them, here’s a sobering thought: European Space Agency researchers pointed their satellites at the Earth’s oceans in 2004, and reckon there're 10 or so of these giant monsters plying the oceans at any given time.

The ocean’s a big place, though, so don’t worry too much when you’re on your next transatlantic cruise (you can go ahead and take an extra life jacket, though).

Ball lightning

Here’s another supposedly mythical weather phenomenon, but WAY more mysterious than rogue waves.

Much smaller scale, but somehow even freakier, the stories (and there are MANY stories) describe glowing balls appearing everywhere from the distant sky, to right in the living room (YouTube is full of supposed "sightings").

Making things even weirder, the stories completely differ on how these things behave. One account describes one that appeared in the living room, then sort wandered around a bit before flickering out. Another supposedly passed through a metal aircraft, neither damaging the plane nor detonating its fuel stocks.

Another is said to have screamed its way through a Russian church while a young Nicholas II, future (and last) tsar of Russia, was in attendance with his grand-dad. Another blazed down from the sky, severed a phone line, scorched walls and landed in a bathtub, where it fizzled out.

It wasn’t until the 1970s when scientists began to accept these things were not all hallucinations, and even then, aside from apocryphal sightings here and there, they were only ever recreated inside labs.

There are a number of possible explanations, and we deeply regret that none of them could form the basis of the next Ghostbusters movie.

The leading one is that when conventional lightning strikes mineral-rich soil, it vaporizes some of the metals, setting off a chain reaction with oxygen that emits heat and light. And the whole phenomenon is so inscrutable, that theory wasn’t really shored up until earlier this year, when Chinese scientists on a field trip happened to point a spectrographic camera at one by accident.

So we’ll go with the 'vaporized mineral' idea, at least until some other group of scientists stumbles onto another sighting through sheer, dumb luck.

Rains of animals

And here’s where we get biblical.

Whether you think it’s a sign of the apocalypse, or one of nature’s more tasty mysteries, occasionally, some small town somewhere in the world will report fish, frogs or some other kind of animal falling in large quantities from the sky.

These are very old stories, and they come from around the world. The ancient Roman historian Pliny reported a hail of frogs in the First Century AD. Just in the last decade, we had a hail of fish in England, fishy rain in Australia’s dry and remote Northern Territory, even a highly localized tadpole burst in a densely populated Japanese prefecture.

Closer to home: Canada Day in 1903 was marked by a rain of fish in Moose Jaw, Sask. In 1912, Lethbridge, Alta., got serving of beetles.

Sometimes it gets really, REALLY bizarre, like the Lluvias de Peces in one small town in Honduras. SPECIFICALLY one town, and one town only, in Honduras, and it’s been happening every year for more than a century.

The fact they happen in the rainy season, and even this account only mentions it from a second hand source who claimed to witness it, not first-hand, is a clue: The fish likely come from underground rivers, forced to the surface by rain-saturated, rising groundwater.

The locals don’t care, though. They make whole festivals out of it:

As for pretty much all the other stories where the fish have actually been observed falling from the sky, the actual explanation could be just as simple.

Tornadoes tracking over rivers or lakes suck up whatever aquatic life happens to be within, holds them aloft in the storm as it moves on, then sends them descending back to Earth, probably quite far away from their original digs.

No one has ever actually observed the origin of the phenomenon first hand, and it’s odd that it only ever seems to be one kind of aquatic lifeform at a time, but we’re sure we’ll figure it out eventually – if only so we can predict where to be waiting with the tartar sauce.

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