"Tornadoes over water" spark warnings to marine, air traffic
Keen-eyed lightkeeper alerts Coast Guard after spying water spouts off Nanaimo
By JUDITH LAVOIE, Timescolonist.com February 17, 2011 Comments (1)
Inky-black clouds first caught the attention of lightkeeper Glenn Borgens as he looked out from the lighthouse on Entrance Island, off Nanaimo, Thursday morning.
Then the weird weather became more dramatic as five water spouts dropped out of the bottom of the clouds.
"It was quite something to see," said Borgens, who, as the first spout developed, phoned the Canadian Coast Guard so warnings could be broadcast to marine and air traffic.
"It's the West Coast version of a tornado over water. You get the spinning effect and the waves kicking up in short order," said Borgens, who is relieved he saw the water spouts fast enough that warnings to avoid the area could be quickly relayed.
"I'm not saying we saved a life today, but the potential was there. We protected mariners from getting involved," he said.
The spouts, which were confirmed by B.C. Ferries' Queen of Cowichan, lasted between 12 and 15 minutes while Borgens watched, but a snowstorm then obliterated the view.
Borgens said it is the first time in his 15 years as a lightkeeper that he has seen a water spout, although other keepers have seen them
Environment Canada meteorologist David Jones said water spouts are normally reported about a couple of times a year on the south coast, particularly around the Strait of Georgia. They are caused by a swirling mass of very cold air over an area where the water below is relatively warm, Jones said.
"These things never last very long, but there are significant impacts for anyone out on the water," Jones said.
Although meteorologists know when conditions are ripe for water spouts, they are almost impossible to predict.
"You haven't a hope in hell of telling people if one is going to pop up somewhere," Jones said.
That underlines the importance of having lightkeepers to report events such as spouts, said former lightkeeper Jim Abrams, a Strathcona Regional District director and advocate of keeping light stations staffed.
No piece of equipment can identify spouts, meaning marine traffic would be at risk, Abrams said.
"They are absolutely violent. You don't want to be anywhere near them in a boat or plane or helicopter. They're a column of violent, swirling winds and you can see the water being sucked up in the vortex," he said.
A committee is reporting to the Senate this week on its recommendation that Fisheries Minister Gail Shea stop destaffing lighthouses.
Last year Shea asked the senate standing committee on fisheries and oceans to investigate lighthouse destaffing.
Once the report — which says lightkeepers play a key role in public safety — goes to Shea, she has 150 days to make a decision.
Alice Woods, lightkeepeer at Chatham Point and acting president of B.C. Lightkeepers, said Borgens' quick action is an illustration of how much the human element is needed at light stations.
"The water spouts would not have been picked up by automated weather stations," she said.
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