South Africa

EXPLAINER

What we know about the ‘landspout’ that tore through parts of KwaZulu-Natal

What we know about the ‘landspout’ that tore through parts of KwaZulu-Natal
From left: A tornado-like landspout forming from a developing thunderstorm. (Photo: Wikimedia) | A general view of Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Leila Dougan) | A tornado-like landspout. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Has the term ‘landspout’ got you baffled? We break down the tornado-like phenomenon that ripped through KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) on Tuesday afternoon.

Strong, damaging winds that resembled a tornado tore through Inanda and Phoenix, north of Durban, on Tuesday afternoon. After evaluating video footage of the phenomenon, the South African Weather Service (Saws) determined that the wind phenomenon that hit the area was a “landspout”. 

But Wayne Venter, a forecaster at Saws, said tornadoes and landspouts are essentially the same thing. 

“The only difference is in how they dynamically form and what the atmospheric processes look like,” he said. 

Several parts of KwaZulu-Natal were severely affected by heavy rainfall which led to localised flooding on Tuesday as a result of a cut-off low system — a very fierce low-pressure system that develops in the upper air and extends down to the surface. A cut-off low caused the heavy rains which led to devastating flooding in the province in April 2022. 

The storm was still raging on Tuesday afternoon when video footage and photographs began circulating on social media showing debris, including corrugated iron sheets, doors, windows and planks of wood flying overhead in Inanda and surrounding areas, Daily Maverick reported

What are tornadoes and landspouts?

A tornado is a rotating column of air, advancing at immense speed, that forms from a supercell thunderstorm. 

“If it didn’t develop from a supercell thunderstorm, it’s not called a tornado; it’s called a landspout,” Venter told Daily Maverick

He added that while landspouts are destructive, they are “a lot less intense than tornadoes from supercell thunderstorms”.

“Their winds can still be damaging, but on a much weaker scale than winds from tornadoes that develop because of supercell thunderstorms. Supercell thunderstorms are the most intense thunderstorms on the planet — they also develop in South Africa. From those storms we can get very destructive tornadoes.”

In a statement on Wednesday evening, Saws said: “On first impression, landspouts and tornadoes do look very similar; both phenomena manifest themselves as a dark, spinning vortex or tube extending from the base of a cloud. Both phenomena have the capacity to cause wind damage, as we witnessed [on Tuesday].” 

However, the weather service said tornadoes typically cause damage across a much greater range of the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale — which is used to assess storm damage caused by landspouts, waterspouts and tornadoes — “whilst wind damage due to landspouts or waterspouts tends to be much less severe”.

The severity of the damage resulting from the landspout in Inanda and Phoenix “lies within the lower end” of the EF scale, said the weather service. 

Based on the photographic evidence it received, Saws rated the landspout as an EF1, which is “associated with wind gusts well in excess of 100km/h”.

 

While landspouts and tornadoes may look alike, Saws said their formative processes differ widely. The formation of a tornado requires a thunderstorm, said Saws.

“Interestingly there is no evidence to suggest that any electrical storms were active in the Inanda and Phoenix areas during mid-afternoon [on Tuesday], when the landspout was observed. No eyewitnesses mentioned either lightning or thunder. Moreover, despite cloudy conditions with rain being observed throughout much of the day at King Shaka International Airport (approximately 15km NNE of Phoenix), no thunderstorms were observed.”

Landspouts develop mainly because of air mass changes in the atmosphere, like temperature and moisture changes, which allow for vertical uplift and rotation, explained Venter.

“By contrast, a landspout can form simply by the interaction of two low-level air masses moving in opposing directions. The air trapped along this narrow boundary is sometimes exposed to a twisting force, which can force the air column to twist or spin around a vertically oriented axis.”  

Electricity poles after the storm in Inanda township outside Durban on 28 June 2023. (Photo: Mandla Langa)

So, what is a waterspout?

A waterspout is essentially the water-based equivalent of a landspout. It is typically described as a relatively small, weak column of rotating air over a body of water below a cumulus cloud. 

Have there been other landspouts in SA?

Yes. But landspouts are “relatively uncommon” in South Africa, according to Saws. However, this could be because they are underreported by the public. 

Saws forecaster Molebohene Manthata confirmed to Daily Maverick that the landspout in Durban, and another which was observed and documented on 4 June in Koperfontein, near Hopefield in the Western Cape, are the only ones the weather service has on record this year. 

Houses left without roofs in Dube Village after a tornado-like phenomenon hit the area in Inanda, Durban, 28 June 2023. (Photo: Mandla Landa)

How can you help?

Preliminary reports by the provincial Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) indicate that the heavy rains and strong winds in parts of KwaZulu-Natal caused extensive damage to road infrastructure, electricity, sewer systems and houses. 

The areas severely affected include Phoenix, Inanda, Ntuzuma, KwaMashu, Pinetown and surrounding areas, Folweni and the north of Durban. In the Ugu District Municipality, the hardest-hit areas were Umzumbe, Umdoni and Umuziwabantu.

“Houses in eThekwini Metro bore the brunt of the devastation, with approximately 70 houses completely destroyed and a further 110 houses partially damaged. This has affected a total of 552 people, leaving 151 individuals homeless. 

“In the Ugu District Municipality, one house was left completely destroyed while three others suffered partial damages, affecting 29 people. One person was left homeless,” Cogta said in a statement on Thursday. At least four people lost their lives in the destruction. 

The non-profit food distribution organisation FoodForward SA is calling on South Africans to assist those affected in the province. The NGO has appealed to anyone who is able to help, to donate non-perishable groceries, blankets, mattresses, water, toiletries and baby food to its warehouse at 23 Gillitts Road, New Germany, Pinetown

“Many families have been displaced and housed in local community halls. FoodForward SA is responding by providing warm meals at the community halls. Our staff are on site this morning and working with disaster management and our local social partners to provide support to those in need,” said Andy du Plessis, the managing director of FoodForward SA. DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

Gallery
Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz