Local tornado sighting first one reported in 50 years
As he stood on the roof of a warehouse in the midst of construction at Port Metro Vancouver in East Richmond, Surrey's Tim Marsh couldn't initially figure out what he was seeing.
"I turned around and I saw this big stream going up in the sky...It's something you don't see every day, or ever," he said of the noon-hour sighting on Monday at the foot of No. 7 Road, at Blundell, next to the South Arm of the Fraser River.
Marsh was among more than a dozen workers on the rooftop, with many pulling out their cellular phones to capture images and video of the tall, spinning, narrow vortex that reached down from a cloud like a finger and scoured a sandy section of land, next to a stand of trees.
"Usually you see little dust tornados, wrappers flying in circles and then it dissipates. But nothing of this magnitude. I was kind of in awe of the whole thing," he said.
Marsh uploaded his 63-second video, taken from his iPhone4S, to YouTube (tinyurl.com/RichmondTornado) on Tuesday night.
So rare is this type of phenomenon in the Lower Mainland that University of B.C.'s Philip Austin, associate professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences, questioned whether the video was authentic.
But after viewing a photo captured from a different angle by Langley safety officer Michael Bennett, who works for Titan construction on another warehouse construction site just up the street, Austin became a believer.
So how rare was the sighting?
"Certainly once in a lifetime, I'd say," Austin said.
The last time a tornado was reported in the Lower Mainland, was in Vancouver on July 1, 1962, according to Wikipedia. According to the entry, it was a small tornado and just the third tornado reported since Environment Canada's weather office opened in 1929.
Austin said it's still not clear whether this was a tornado or a dust devil, the distinction essentially boiling down to the speed of rotation.
To stir up a cloud of dust and loft it into the sky, Austin said wind speeds would have to reach 30 or 40 miles per hour.
But in Marsh's YouTube video, a voice off-camera says: "I think it picked up a piece of wood and threw it."
If that's true, and the winds were able to lift low-profile objects off the ground, this could have been a category F0 (F-zero) tornado with speeds of between 40 and 70 miles per hour.
"It's pretty spectacular that it's got that much vertical coherence and that it's able to keep its identity at that depth," Austin said.
Andre Besson, operational meteorologist for Environment Canada, was also skeptical.
"It's extremely unusual. It's never happened here (in the Lower Mainland)," said Besson, a meteorologist for the past nine years. "The only tornado case I can think of was in Cranbrook."
Besson said conditions over the past week would not have been conducive to cause this type of weather phenomenon.
"We've had no reports whatsoever of a severe convection. Usually those types of events are associated with moderate to severe convection. I'm skeptical at this point."
But the crew from Raving Roofing know what they witnessed.
"It looked like yellow dust, pretty much," said Lindsay Gaetan. "I though it was a fire."
It lasted about 10 or 15 minutes, added Sukhi Brar.
Brock Fabbro said the sighting kept about a dozen construction witnesses entranced: "I didn't know if this was considered a tornado or not. It was amazing looking. It went right into the clouds."
Ryan Vassallo agreed it was something to behold. "I actually thought it was a dust devil."
Richmond Review editor Bhreandain Clugston recalls seeing something similar in May of 1980 in Richmond. On a day when half the sky was sunny and the other half had a dark, black thundercloud, he saw a long funnel cloud hovering in the vicinity of East Richmond.
"I saw this weird funnel cloud. I don't know if touched the ground or not."