Robert Hitt Neill Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dust devils can turn into tornado looking funnels

I’ve been from the MS Delta all my life, except for a few years at Oxford and a couple more foreign places where I got shot at.

In the Delta summertimes, we frequently see those dust devils moving slowly across the fields. Without being scientific about it, it’s my understanding that these are visual manifestations of thermal air currents, which my son-in-law pilot says he runs into thousands of feet up in the sky, and some are strong enough to cause the airplane he is driving to suddenly rise, then as suddenly drop, when he flies out of it.

I was aware that these thermals go up thousands of feet because I have watched hawks “stacking” that far as they lazily ride these currents across country. Bobby Bryan and I were bird hunting one fall day and observed 45 hawks riding a thermal spread out from close to the ground up to as far as we could see a hawk with the naked eye.

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Now and then a high-soaring hawk would tuck his wings and free-fall like a rock almost to the ground, before spreading his wings to stop his descent, then starting to gain altitude in circles within the thermal, never flapping his wings as he slowly rose to do it again.

I’ve always wondered what the high hawks must have hollered to the lower hawks just before folding their wings and dropping through their midst, as a warning: maybe “Geronimo!” or “Hey, guys, watch thiiiissss!!”

When these swirling wind currents are low enough to the ground to pick up a load of dust, thereby becoming visible, we call them “dust devils” – unless we’re at sea, when we call them “waterspouts.”

Woe to a helicopter pilot who dares to fly into a waterspout, at least when the Skipper or Air Boss of the carrier happens to be watching! Sometimes these swirly thermals pick up enough velocity to do some damage, though of course not as much as their big brothers, tornadoes, or the granddaddies of all whirling winds, hurricanes!

Anyhoo, I have been around these things all my life: been through hurricanes on ships at sea four times (once through the eye!), several times have had tornadoes skip right over the house (the Mammy Grudge ditchbank seems to act as a buffer for a tornado approaching from the southwest, where most of them come from; the funnel runs up the 30-foot-high ditchbank and bounces over the house), and once Br’er Beau and I saw a tornado forming, hustled back to the house to call it in and grab a camera, then paralleled it on the road within a quarter mile north for three miles, taking pictures!

But this summer, I witnessed a dirt devil that turned into an ugly black twister, but not a tornado, you understand.

A farmer was burning off a harvested wheat field – wheat straw burns fiercely – and the farmer had done it the way I learned it, too: he had disked up the stubble back for probably 30 yards from the treelines, then driven along the upwind side of the field flipping out matches.

The fire hadn’t run a hundred yards before the flames were leaping 50 feet above the ground, and the heat pulled more air into the inferno, rolling the smoke and flames higher still as the blaze roared across the field, an awesome sight.

Then I noticed a small dust devil forming to the side of the main fire, picking up the burnt stubble, so that the dust devil quickly turned black itself, as it raced alongside and just behind the massive smoke-and-flame column.

Then that wind generated by the sudden heat arrived.

That lil’ ole dust devil suddenly bloomed into a pitch-black funnel cloud a quarter-mile high, it seemed, and its top merged with the black cloud of smoke and orange flame advancing across the field.

As I said, I’ve seen tornadoes, and this was quickly transformed into a real tornado, except it was generated by a rapidly-moving fire, not a weather front. I had never seen such a phenomenon before.

Nor do I ever hope to again, but I was going to get my money’s worth from this one. I parked my vehicle and wished for a camera, as I watched it smash into the treeline, even as the storm of smoke and flame abruptly halted when it hit the disked-up space.

Within a half mile, the funnel was back down to a normal dust devil.

The things that God will show us in the outdoors, if we will just watch!