Funnel cloud

This photo capturing a funnel cloud in the Mat-Su has circulated on social media.

WILLOW — A video posted on social media June 5 that displayed the early characteristics of what appeared to be a funnel cloud or tornado was analyzed by the National Weather Service in Anchorage.

NWS posted their analysis of the video, dispelling rumors that a funnel cloud had occurred. The swirling clouds that reached form the dark mass above towards the surface below was not a funnel cloud. NWS classified the event as a ‘scud’ or ‘pannus’ cloud.

“A scud is generally ragged & wispy in appearance. This one formed in the region of the storm where warm air rapidly rises and condenses,” read the caption on NWS’s analysis of the video.

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The difference between a tornado and a funnel cloud is that a tornado touches the ground. While the clouds did swirl and appear to be moving in a circular direction. There have been three documented tornadoes that occurred in Alaska, two in Bethel and one in Sand Point in 2005. The NWS has documented 14 different reports of funnel clouds.

“We did not conclude that there was any rotation. For it to be a funnel cloud, there would have to be some kind of rotation,” said Amber Hill, a meteorologist with the NWS.

Funnel clouds develop in a similar fashion to the thunderstorms that struck the Valley on five consecutive days last week. The high temperature near the earth’s surface lifts the air up into the atmosphere where it connects with colder temperatures. Since the Mat-Su Valley reaches considerably higher temperatures than it’s coastal counterpart, Anchorage, the appearance of thunderstorms along the Kenai Peninsula and in the Mat-Su Valley is common during the early summer months. Rotational winds in the environment aid in the movement of these storms, and NWS staff monitors radar of most impending storms in Alaska. While the storms themselves are not out of the ordinary for this time of year, the flash flood in Palmer on Monday occurred when the thunderstorm did not have enough boundary wind coming from the mountains to keep moving. These unique weather phenomena are considerably different from their counterparts in the lower 48. Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the NWS Louise Fode said that these thunderstorms and spinning winds are different from ‘super cell’ storms in the Lower 48.

“We’re very unlikely to see something like that here in Alaska and the features that have been reported are definitely not on that scale,” Fode said.

Fode encouraged those who observe funnel clouds, tornadoes, hail or thunderstorms to report to their data to the NWS.

KTUU Channel 2 Chief Meteorologist Jackie Purcell said that she’s also received reports of funnel clouds in Northway. Purcell said that the topography of the southwestern region of the state is most conducive to funnel clouds, due to how flat the region is. With only seven radar stations in the state, many of these inclement weather instances may not be tracked by radar and only reported from first hand encounters.

“These may have been occurring all the time,or at least on a more regular basis without us knowing. With improved radar coverage and weather systems, maybe we’re just catching those circulations a little bit more,” Purcell said.

In 19 years at Channel 2 as a meteorologist, Purcell said that she has noticed an increase in convective activity over the last 10 to 15 years. Anchorage recently broke a 19-year streak without a severe thunderstorm warning.

“What you saw last week in Palmer and Wasilla was thunderstorms forming over higher elevations and driving through the Valley and then continuing on your merry way like I’m happily raining all over you,” Purcell said.

One weather observationist was happy with the week of continued evening storms. Ben VanderWeele has been a volunteer with the National Weather Bureau for 50 years, and thought it was awesome.

“It was great fun,” VanderWeele said.

VanderWeele saw no damage to vegetables on his farm, but called the continued thunderstorms unique. He was happy with the extra short term help from the rain and said that in recent years, conditions have been too cold and windy for improved crops. VanderWeele measured three quarters of an inch in three quarters of an hour at his farm last Monday during the most rapid of last week’s rainfall.

Contact Frontiersman reporter Tim Rockey at


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