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The tornado that wasn’t … or was it?

Looking west from The Ledges. Photo by Scott C. Garcia

Look closely at the middle of that rain shaft in the photo. Do you see it? A funnel.

Detail. Photo by Scott C. Garcia

The photo was taken yesterday, July 24, by Scott Garcia from The Ledges on Longs Peak. The Longs summit is 14,259 feet and The Ledges are somewhat lower, perhaps 12,500+ feet. In this picture it’s impossible to tell how high the funnel is or where/if it touched down, but needless to say this is not a place where one expects to see a tornado.

NOAA reports:

The highest elevation a tornado has ever occurred is unknown; but it is at least 10,000 feet above sea level. On 7 July 2004, a hiker observed and photographed a tornado at 12,000 feet in Sequoia National Park, California. That probably was the highest elevation tornado observed in the U. S. On 28 July 2012, a spectacular tornado moved across ground elevations of around 11,900 feet, along the flank of Mt. Evans, CO.

(Hmm. Were those really “tornadoes” or just “cold air funnels”?)

According to meteorologist Chris Tomer, of Denver’s Fox31, yesterday’s funnel was a tornado, but “not in the traditional sense.” He thinks it was a type of tornado called a non-supercell landspout or cold air funnel.

A different photo, taken from near Grand Lake by Brandon Vogt and submitted to the National Weather Service in Boulder, shows the funnel not touching down:

But who’s to say, really. These things drop from the clouds, go back up, and maybe drop again. Nevertheless, NWS took this as confirmation that the funnel did not touch down. Had it touched down and caused damage, it would have been classified as an EF-0 level tornado (winds up to 85 mph).

Was it a tornado or a cold air funnel? Did it touch down? What was its elevation? Does it really matter? It’s fascinating stuff, and that’s reason enough to talk about it.

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