Seven waterspouts align as lava from the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea pours into the ocean in this striking photo from photographer Bruce Omori. Like many waterspouts—and their landbound cousins dust devils—these vortices are driven by variations in temperature and moisture content. Near the ocean surface, air and water vapor heated by the lava create a warm, moist layer beneath cooler, dry air. As the warm air rises, other air is drawn in by the low pressure left behind. Any residual vorticity in the incoming air gets magnified by conservation of angular momentum, like a spinning ice skater pulling her arms in. This creates the vortices, which are made visible by entrained steam and/or moisture condensing from the rising air. (Photo credit: B. Omori, via HPOTD; submitted by jshoer)


These images from Earth Observatory show islands creating ‘von Karman vortices' in the stratocumulus clouds. In the animation you can see that each vortex is formed from alternating sides of the object that is impeding flow of the fluid such as clouds or soap films.

In the first image, the water droplets in the clouds create an optical phenomena known as Glory, making the rainbow to the left. However, this is different from a rainbow, in that it is formed from backwards diffraction meaning they are always directly opposite to the Sun.

Reader unquietcode asks:

I saw this post recently and it made me wonder what’s going on. If you look in the upper right of the frame as the camera submerges, you can see a little vortex of water whirring about. Even with the awesome power of the wave rolling forward a little tornado of water seems able to stably form. Any idea what causes this phenomenon?

This awesome clip was taken from John John Florence’s "& Again" surf video. What you’re seeing is the vortex motion of a plunging breaking wave. As ocean waves approach the shore, the water depth decreases, which amplifies the wave’s height. When the wave reaches a critical height, it breaks and begins to lose its energy to turbulence. There are multiple kinds of breaking waves, but plungers are the classic surfer’s wave. These waves become steep enough that the top of the wave  overturns and plunges into the water ahead of the wave. This generates the vortex-like tube you see in the animation. Such waves can produce complicated three-dimensional vortex structures like those seen in this video by Clark Little. Any initial variation in the main vortex gets stretched as the wave rolls on, and this spins up and strengthens the rib vortices seen wrapped around the primary vortex. (Source video: B. Kueny and J. Florence)


Literature is full of descriptions of monstrous whirlpools like Charybdis, which threatens Homer’s Odysseus. While it’s not unusual to see a small free vortex in bodies of water, most people would chalk boat-swallowing maelstroms up to literary device. But it turns out that, while there may not be permanent Hollywood-style whirlpools, there are several places in the world where the local tides, currents, and topology combine to produce turbulence, dangerously vortical waters, and even standing vortices on a regular basis. 

One example is the Corryvreckan, between the islands of Jura and Scarba off Scotland. In this narrow strait, Atlantic currents are funneled down a deep hole and then thrust upward by a pinnacle of rock that rises some 170 m to only 30 m below the surface. The swift waters and unusual topology produce strong turbulence near the surface and whirlpools pop up throughout the strait. Other “permanent” maelstroms, such as those in Norway and Japan, arise from tidal interactions with similar structures rising from the sea floor.

For more, check out this Smithsonian article, Gjevik et al., Moe et al., and the videos linked above! (Photo credits: Manipula, Tokushima Gov’t, Wikimedia, and W. Baxter; requested by @kb8s)


The world’s most powerful artificial tornado is part of the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany. Though popular enough with visitors that the staff will bring out smoke generators to make it visible, the tornado was not built as an attraction - It’s actually part of the building’s fire protection system. The modern open design of the museum meant that conventional smoke removal systems were inadequate. Instead vorticity is generated in the central lobby with 144 wall-mounted jets. The angular velocity created by the jets is strongest at the middle, in the vortex core, due to conservation of angular momentum - exactly the way a spinning ice skater speeds up by pulling his arms in. The core of the vortex is a low pressure area, which draws outside air toward it - this is how the tornado pulls in smoke when there is a fire. The fan on the ceiling provides the pressure draw necessary for the smoke to be pulled up and out of the building at a supposed rate of 4 tons per minute. See the tornado in action here. (Photo credit: Mercedes-Benz Passion; submitted by Ivan)

instead of watching the SOTU...

I’m reading climate papers. This one is about storm tracks affecting continental Alaska, the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea:

"The strong formation area over the North American continental interior is largely a result of lee cyclogenesis behind the coastal mountain ranges, that is, cyclogenesis initiated by the conservation of potential vorticity (Holton 2004)" - Mesquita et al 2010

Vorticity is my new favorite term. I take it to mean the degree of vortexiness.

Most objects are not particularly aerodynamic or streamlined. When air flows over such bluff bodies, they can shed regular vortices from one side and then the other. This periodic shedding creates a von Karman vortex street, like this one stretching out from Isla Socorro off western Mexico. From the wind’s perspective, the volcanic island forms a blunt disruption to the otherwise smooth ocean. This vortex shedding is seen at smaller scales, as well, in the wind tunnel, in soap films, and in water tunnels. If you’ve ever been outside on a windy day and heard the electrical lines “singing” in the wind, that’s the same phenomena, too. With the right crosswind, radial bicycle spokes will buzz for the same reason as well!  (Photo credit: MODIS/NASA Earth Observatory)