SA Weather Service explains KwaZulu-Natal’s tornado sightings

Images that circulated on social media of the rope tornado near Utrecht (left) and the wedge tornado near oThongathi (right). Source: Facebook, Unknown

Images that circulated on social media of the rope tornado near Utrecht (left) and the wedge tornado near oThongathi (right). Source: Facebook, Unknown

Published Jun 4, 2024


Durban — When large and intense weather systems affect the country, tornadoes can occur.

That was according to the South African Weather Service (Saws) after severe thunderstorms affected parts of KwaZulu-Natal resulting in at least two tornado sightings on Monday afternoon.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Saws said a large weather system, namely a cut-off low, affected large parts of the country since the weekend and was responsible for the heavy rainfall and significant flooding over parts of the Eastern Cape.

Saws said that on Monday, the system moved over the western and central interior of the country and resulted in cold air that invaded the central and western interior. The eastern parts of the country, particularly KZN, experienced warm and moist conditions.

Explaining, Saws said later on Monday, the atmosphere became unstable when these cold and warm air masses met, resulting in a line of thunderstorm development over the western parts of KZN. Severe thunderstorms developed within this line, causing strong to damaging winds, small hail to large hail in places, heavy rainfall and at least two observed tornadoes. This line of storms continued to move east over the province in the afternoon while exiting and moving offshore during the evening.

High-resolution visible satellite image of South Africa indicating a line of thunderstorms over parts of KwaZulu-Natal on Monday afternoon, with lightning overlayed (right). Source: SAWS, Eumetsat, 2024

“The first tornado occurred between Newcastle and Utrecht over the western interior of KwaZulu-Natal early in the afternoon and initial investigations indicate that it started off as a rope tornado, which developed further into a cone tornado. Rope and cone tornadoes get their names from their shapes.

“These tornadoes are generally narrower, closer to the ground and wider at the base of the cloud,” Saws explained.

“A larger tornado developed later in the afternoon around oThongathi and moved east to the coast near Westbrook and Ballito, where it caused significant damage. This tornado was stronger and larger (wedge-like).

“Wedge tornadoes are usually larger and wider from the surface to the cloud base or, in other words, they are wider than they are tall. Wedge/wide tornadoes are often (but not always) categorised as strong tornadoes,” Saws continued.

Saws went on to say that South Africa does get tornadoes from time to time, particularly when large and intense weather systems affect the country.

Saws added that following media questions about whether these occurrences can be associated with climate change, it is safe to say that, although a singular weather event cannot be directly correlated to climate change, climatologists agree that these types of weather systems may become more frequent and intense in the future due to a warming climate.

“The tornadoes’ strength, damage and impacts will be further investigated and findings will be released upon the completion of the post-severe weather report.”

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