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Damage from waterspouts is rare because they usually dissipate at sea. But recently a devastating waterspout swept in from the ocean across the seaside town of Lennox Head in northern New South Wales, the waterspout was approximately 100 metres wide and reached wind speeds of 160 kms/hour but fortunately dissipated rapidly.

The basic structure of convective vortices, such as waterspouts and tornadoes, is created by an intense low pressure, which causes an increase in wind speed, the winds then rotate into a vortex flow. Large-scale tornadoes are influenced by the Coriolis effect and rotate cyclonically ie in the Northern Hemisphere rotate counterclockwise and in the Southern Hemisphere rotate clockwise. However the rotational direction of smaller formations such as waterspouts are primarily effected by the ambient conditions.

Tornadoes are not common in Australia but they do occur, in 1971 three people were killed by a tornado at Kin Kin near Gympie and in 1992 the most intense tornado recorded in Australia - with a Fujita rating of F4 - occurred at Bucca, west of Bundaberg. Waterspouts are more common and are seen in tropical and subtropical oceans around Australia and were described by Sir Joseph Banks during Captain Cook’s 1770 journey of discovery on the Endeavour.

Waterspouts can occur over oceans, lakes and rivers, they appear as a funnel-shaped whirling column of air and water vapour extending between the water surface and cloudbase. The water vapour that forms this funnel cloud is a result of condensation, not the upward suction of water from the water surface.

Waterspouts develop in five discreet overlapping stages. Firstly there is a raised dark spot on the water surface which indicates contact of a complete funnel of air between the cloud system and the water's surface. Then a spiral pattern of light and dark bands of water rotate around the dark spot. When wind speed reaches around 65 kms/hour a spray vortex, or cascade, is formed, often rising several hundred metres into the air. Next, the fully visible waterspout reaches from the water surface to the cloud, at this point the waterspout reaches maturity and maximum intensity. The final stage is decay as rain begins to fall from the parent cloud and cools the supply of warm air feeding the waterspout

There are two types of waterspouts

The most common are fair weather (non tornadic) waterspouts - formations that are caused by the convection action of towering cumulus clouds that draw humid air upwards in a spiralling vortex. They are static or slow moving, dissipate quickly and usually exhibit wind speeds less than 70 kms/hour.

Less common but larger, more long lasting, severe and therefore more dangerous are tornadic waterspouts which are basically tornadoes over water. These form when the downdraft from a supercell (thunderstorm) drags a condensation funnel down from the base of the storm to the water surface.

Waterspouts are spectacular but best seen at a distance and should definitely be avoided at sea.

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Why does attentiveness to nature matter? In a very fundamental sense, we are what we pay attention to. Paying heed to beauty, grace, and everyday miracles promotes a sense of possibility and coherence that runs deeper and truer than the often illusory commercial, social "realities" advanced by mainstream contemporary culture. ... Our attention is precious, and what we choose to focus it on has enormous consequences. What we choose to look at, and to listen to--these choices change the world. As Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed out, we become the bad television programs that we watch. A society that expends its energies tracking the latest doings of the celebrity couple is fundamentally distinct from one that watches for the first arriving spring migrant birds, or takes a weekend to check out insects in a mountain stream, or looks inside flowers to admire the marvelous ingenuities involved in pollination. The former tends to drag culture down to its lowest commonalities; the latter can lift us up in a sense of unity with all life. The Way of Natural History, edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner and published by Trinity University Press (Texas)