The weather phenomenon that took place northeast of Ellensburg on Saturday afternoon may be one that few people in the area will ever see, but it was only one component of a storm that wreaked havoc all over the Pacific Northwest.

Meteorologist Rob Brooks with the National Weather Service in Pendleton, Oregon said small funnel clouds of the type seen near Secret Canyon most likely happen more often than people actually see, but that it was remarkable that multiple people were able to witness and photograph this one.

“From a weather enthusiast’s perspective, that was pretty awesome,” he said.

Brooks said funnel clouds, which cannot be called tornadoes unless they make contact with the ground are relatively rare for the region. Their rarity is due to the rain shadow caused by the mountains, making it difficult for the types of storms to form that create conditions favorable for funnel clouds.

Although actual funnel clouds are rare in the area, Brooks said there are other conditions that occur that result in people calling in what they believe are funnel clouds but are actually other weather phenomenon. During some storms in the area, rain shafts referred to as virga will form, and can taper in towards the bottom. Brooks said this is a result of high temperatures during thunderstorms.

“When they taper, they take a cone shape,” he said. “You’ll see a rain shaft that tapers at the bottom.”

Despite some weather conditions looking similar to funnel clouds, Brooks said specific requirements are necessary during a storm to create an actual twister.

“It does take the air trying to rotate and twist in there inside of real moist dense air to get yourself a decent little funnel cloud started,” he said.

Despite the phenomenon being relatively rare, Brooks said there were many other parts of Saturday’s storm that had a more pronounced effect throughout the region. He pointed out reports of .75-inch hail in Thorp and multiple other events that occurred within the Northwest that caused damage.

“There were many other parts of the storm that caused much more damage and were more noteworthy than the funnel cloud,” he said. “It was still interesting though due to its rarity.”

LOCAL PERSPECTIVE

Retired meteorologist and Kittitas County resident Jim Huckabay said in his time living in the area, he has never physically seen a funnel cloud, although he has heard rumors of them occurring at times.

“It’s very uncommon to see a funnel cloud in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “The air, particularly in the Ellensburg area and the air in Washington state is very stable, particularly on our side of the mountains.”

Huckabay said that stability comes from the marine air flow coming off the Pacific. He said a thunderstorm of the type the area received on Saturday is a sign of instability at that specific time that is creating vertical lift.

“When you get that kind of instability that creates that much lift and that much rainfall, that severe thunderstorm in that short of a time period it would not be surprising that a second vortex would develop and you would get a bit of a funnel cloud,” he said. “That is how a tornado develops. It’s just something unique about it. It would be very unique for our part of the country.”

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