Welcome To The "Scary-Looking Cloud" Club!
Credit: SLC Club logo designed by Tracy Kapela, trained severe weather spotter.
Updated June 6, 2013 - new pictures on Page 9
Submitted pictures are always saved on the current last page in the order they are received...which is Page 9 (as of 06/06/13).
Below are the newest pictures (click on image for larger version):
What - the Scary-Looking Cloud (SLC) Club is a club consisting of you and others that have submitted a picture of a scary-looking cloud for posting within this on-line article.
Where - pictures are welcomed from anywhere. In fact, the SLC Club is international! We have entries from Canada, Netherlands, Germany and South Africa!
When - scary-looking clouds can occur anytime of the year. You can submit your picture anytime.
Why - we started the SLC Club in 2009 for three reasons:
1. Explain and show what scary-looking clouds are and the response they trigger from people.
2. Reduce the number of false tornado and/or false funnel cloud reports relayed to County 911 Communication Centers and/or the National Weather Service.
3. Have fun educating people.
How - through this on-line feature, severe weather spotter classes, Facebook, Twitter and you, we can reach out and educate everyone!
Do You Want to Join? - all you have to do is e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at WFO Milwaukee/Sullivan, and attach your favorite picture of a "Scary Looking Cloud," or SLC for short. Now is the time to join the SLC Club! You may also send your SLC picture via Twitter to @rkapelawx. However, e-mail is preferred since you are not limited to ony 140 characters in e-mail, and can explain the situation.
We will post only the best ones. Hope you understand. Any picture you submit automatically becomes part of the public domain - for free use by anyone. We will give you credit, as seen in the pictures below. It may take a couple weeks or so before you see your picture(s) in the Club.
It would be greatly appreciated if you could reduce the size of your digital picture to something in the range of 500 x 600 prior to e-mailing.
The SLC Club photo gallery does not include pictures of tornadoes, funnel clouds, or rotating wall clouds.
What do you get out of the SLC Club? - Besides the satisfaction of helping other people, let's be honest....you get some bragging rights!
Words of Wisdom - Jeff Last, WCM at WFO Green Bay has been telling spotters in northeast Wisconsin - "If it doesn't spin, don't call it in!"
SLC Club Pictures - pages with pictures found near bottom of this web page.
Basic SLC definition:
Scary-looking clouds are cloud fragments or precipitation that briefly resemble funnel clouds or tornadoes. Most scary-looking clouds located at the bottom of storm clouds. Due to hills and trees blocking your field of view, they may even appear to touch the ground. These kinds of clouds look scary to some people who might call them in as funnel clouds, or even tornadoes, to the 911 Dispatchers of the local Sheriff Department. This results in false funnel cloud or false tornado reports being relayed to the National Weather Service.
In other cases where the scary-looking clouds are located at higher levels above the ground, the clouds are scary because they are dark or have an unsual shape or color. On occasions, even precipiation cores or rain shafts extending from cloud base down to the ground may be scary to some people,, depending on the colors or darkness of the rain and/or nearby clouds and sky.
Combining all of these possibilities, scary-looking clouds imply to some people that bad storms or funnel clouds or tornadoes must be right around the corner. So these people call 911 Dispatchers or the NWS.
Below is an excellent example of a Scary-Looking Cloud (hint - it wasn't rotating and there was no damage). Click on image for a larger version.
The remainder of the SLC Club photo gallery (several pages) starts at the bottom of this first page.
Science behind SLCs:
1. Most false tornado and false funnel cloud reports are associated with shelf clouds. They are a low, horizontal wedge-shaped arcus cloud, associated with a thunderstorm gust front (or occasionally with a cold front, even in the absence of thunderstorms). You can view many shelf cloud pictures on the 9 pages of photographs. Unlike the roll cloud, the shelf cloud is attached to the base of the parent cloud above it (usually a thunderstorm). Rising cloud motion often can be seen in the leading (outer) part of the shelf cloud, while the underside often appears turbulent, boiling, and wind-torn. Below is an image showing shelf cloud location realtive to other features. Click on image for larger version.
2. Usually there is no persistent rotation on a vertical axis within shelf clouds or within individual cloud fragments that extend downward from the shelf cloud, therefore cloud fragments are just another scary-looking cloud. Shelf clouds often resemble snow plows, big waves, or tsunamis, and can be very scary-looking since they are usually low-hanging. Sometimes they may found only a couple hundred feet above the ground. Scary-looking clouds are the result of abundant moisture in the atmosphere and sufficient rising motion in the column of air between the ground and the predominate cloud base. Invisible water vapor quickly condenses into a visible cloud fragment which is subsequently raised up to the shelf cloud.
There are two other phenomena that might resemble tornadoes or funnel clouds, but are not:
A) dark rain shafts, or narrow columns of heavy rain, and
B) the white color of a hail shaft, a column of hail extending from the ground to the cloud base, may generate a light-dark contrast with surrounding rain, resulting in what might appear to be a funnel cloud or a tornado to the untrained eye.
3. Cloud fragments within the shelf cloud are rising into the thunderstorm base - this rising motion is referred to as an "updraft" in lines of storms. Shelf clouds can extend horizontally for many miles in length and are your visual indication that the downdraft portion of the thunderstorm line is approaching (behind the shelf cloud, relative to the storm motion). In lines of thunderstorms the updraft is on the forward side and the downdraft is on the backside of the line. The downdraft consists of three things: gusty winds, rain, and possibly hail.
Tornadoes rarely develop under or near the shelf cloud because of the lack of persistent, organized, rotation on a vertical axis on the front side of the line of storms. However, the strongest of downdrafts are called "downbursts" which can produce hurricane-force, straight-line winds of 75 mph to over 100 mph at ground-level, torrential rains, and near-zero visibilities. The resultant damage can resemble damage associated with tornadoes!
4. Generally, if the shelf cloud and storm are rapidly moving toward you then the gusty winds in the downdraft tend to be stronger. The shelf cloud develops in response to the rain-cooled air associated with the downdraft under-cutting and rapidly lifting up lighter, warm, moist air found ahead of the line of storms. In Jerry's picture below, the scary-looking, funnel-shaped cloud was not rotating. Therefore it wasn't a true tornado. Actual tornadoes and funnel clouds rotate! If the scary-looking cloud you are looking at is not persistently rotating on a vertical axis, it's not a funnel cloud or a tornado, even if it looks like it's touching the ground or almost touching the ground!
5. Below are a couple pictures of non-rotating, scary-looking cloud fragments taken in Marathon County by Paul Nellas. Looks scary, doesn't it? The funnel-shaped appendage on the left is just scud associated with cool, moist, outflow air seen in the background (rain shaft). Just to the right of the center of the picture on the left you can see some smaller, disconnected scud fragments that are also low-hanging. A close up of these smaller, non-rotating fragments is found in the picture on the right. These smaller fragments might look scary to some people and they may call the 911 dispatcher to report a tornado or funnel cloud. Hopefully, you will not be that person! Keep your emotions in check - take a deep breath and relax! Click on images for a larger version.
6. So, will you be fooled by scary-looking clouds? Trained severe weather spotters understand that they have to look at the SLC feature to determine if it is actually rotating itself. They have to take a deep breath, relax, and observe for a minute or two. The name of the game is to be 100% accurate - and not be the 1st person to call or radio in the report. Of course, if they are the 1st person to call or radio in a true funnel cloud or true tornado, then more power to them! Trained severe weather spotters have been told that if they can't figure out what they are looking at, then they shouldn't report!
Below is another good example of a scary-looking cloud, taken by John Romadka in Dane County. What thought enters you mind when you first see such a cloud feature. Are you thinking funnel cloud or a tornado? The SLC that Jerry was looking at wasn't rotating, therefore it wasn't a funnel cloud or a tornado. It sure is scary - isn't it? Click on image for a larger version.
To set the record straight, a tornado is defined as a violently rotating column of air, extending from the cloud base to the ground. There may or may not be a visible condensation funnel within the tornado, nor does the condensation funnel have to "touch the ground" in order to have a tornado. In the absence of a condensation funnel, your only clue that you have a tornado is the observance of a ground-based, dirt/debris spray/swirl rotating with cloud-base rotation above.
***Keep in mind - tornado does not equal funnel cloud. These are two different animals within the severe weather world! Don't interchage these terms!
Pictures of two different tornadoes are shown below: the one on the left has a classic "stovepipe-funnel" shape, but the one on the right is nearly invisible, save for the rotating dirt/debris spray-swirl at ground level and cloud base rotation (rotation not discernable in a static image.).
The picture below is labled with the names of different features typically associated with supercell thunderstorms. This is a picture of a tornadic storm. Just prior to the picture a tornado moved through southeastern Marquette County into southwest Green Lake County on July 27, 2009. There is no visible tornado in this picture. Usually, but not always, a tornado will develop underneath or very close to a rotating wall cloud. In this picture you cannot see the tornado since it is nearly invisible (you are too far away and trees are blocking your view of the ground level. To the left of the rotating wall cloud is a shelf cloud associated with the Rear Flank Downdraft (RFD) that is coming around the rotating wall cloud.
Sometimes, individual, scary-looking, cloud fragments on the bottom of a shelf cloud are called-in as funnel clouds. In the ipicture below - the very low, horizontal,inlfow cloud band to the right of the rotating wall cloud indicates strong in-flow into the base of the storm from the right. In-flow cloud bands can be very close to the ground and also look scary. A more detailed account of the severe storms and the tornado on July 27th, as well as more excellent pictures by Doug Raflik, can be found by clicking here. Click on image for a larger version.
Funnel Cloud definition:
A funnel cloud is defined as a funnel-shaped cloud that is rotating, but is not in contact with the ground. In other words, nothing is going on at the ground level in a true funnel cloud situation. Trained severe weather spotters know that they either have a funnel cloud or a tornado. There is no such thing as a funnel cloud on the ground, nor is there such a thing as a tornado aloft. By the same token, tornadoes don't "touch-down", they spin up. You either have a funnel cloud or a tornado with respect to relaying severe weather reports back to the NWS. In other words - the funnel cloud isn't the tornado if you understand the drift of this discussion. A tornado may or may not have an associated condensation funnel (what you see with your eyes). That's right - you can have a tornado with no visible condensation funnel - the tornado can develop before the condensation funnel (most people still refer to the condensation funnel as the funnel cloud)!
Below is a funnel cloud picture. The funnel-shaped cloud feature was rotating, but there was no contact with the ground - no damage was observed. Click on image for a larger version.
All of these concepts are covered in our free, 2-hour, severe weather spotter classes conducted each spring in March and April. You don't have to be a spotter in order to attend. The spotter class schedule and location is posted by February 1st on this web site in this Top News of the Day section and also on the SkyWarn page. For the most part, you can attend a class outside of your county. Our basic and advanced spotter slide sets can be found on our Skywarn page in our "Weather Safety" section on our web site by clicking here.
For the latest preparendess ideas, please visit our Preparendess Page.
Feedback on the SLC Club:
On occasions, we get comments from our spotters and other readers concerning the SLC Club. Below is the content of an e-mail message from one of our spotters:
Scott Geddes wrote:
I loved the article you had on scary looking clouds. I think anybody that considers themselves "spotters" should study those SLC Club pictures. In fact, it should be a major part of spotter training. The advice about chilling and watching what it is really doing is really good. I had read something along that line in what I think is the best lay-person book on storms - Under the Whirlwind. Recently, I spotted a rotating column in the air above a field that was definitely rotating, but nothing on the ground and nothing remotely rotating anywhere in the storm above and was on the front end of the storm. After about 2 or 3 minutes it just disappeared. I was glad I observed it long enough to determine it was probable nothing, although interesting, and didn't call it in as something. I did discover years ago to get out of the way of something you are observing if it's moving at you, even if you don't think it's a big deal. I got flattened, along with some small trees while watching a long rolling cloud, looked like a big white log rolling on the ground.....new mental note...if it's rolling/rotating and horizontal/vertical and you are in it's way, despite how harmless it seems....MOVE. Guess it was probably a microburst or something. Anyway, thanks for the great article.
Scary-Looking Cloud Club photo gallery:
Below are some "scary-looking clouds" that were e-mailed in by members of the Scary-Looking Cloud Club (click on thumbnails for larger images). A number of the pictures were taken on August 9, 2009 when a line of the thunderstorms moved west to east across southern Wisconsin. The shelf cloud on the front side of the August 9th line of storms generated an incredibly low shelf cloud that many people took pictures of.
Here's the bottom line - no true tornadoes or funnel clouds appear in any of the cloud pictures on the pages that follow.
Other cloud pictures can be viewed in our Photo Gallery, which is found on the "Other Useful Links" page found in the lower left side of our main web page under the "Additional Info" category.