PALMER — Robert Warren was almost home from the gym Thursday evening when he saw the long, thin funnel cloud extending from the clouds over Palmer just before 7.
The funnel dropped so low, it sent dirt swirling beneath it.
Alaska’s ample disaster menu includes earthquakes, volcanoes and killer cold. Tornadoes — or weather that resembles them — rarely make the list.
“I immediately pulled over so I could get pictures,” said Warren, a 47-year-old nurse practitioner who works at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.
By the time he got out his iPhone, the funnel had already withdrawn back up toward the sky.
But the photo Warren did end up getting made him a temporary weather celebrity. Spread on social media, the snapshot of the skinny, spectral vortex descending from dark clouds made the late news. The National Weather Service called him Friday morning to get permission to post the photo on Twitter.
“The person I talked to said, ‘Oh, this has been all the buzz in the office this morning,’ ” he said.
The unusual phenomenon was most likely a cold air funnel that forms under showers or weak thunderstorms, most typically in the spring when Alaska experiences cold air at higher altitudes and higher temperatures on the ground, forecasters say.
It was 20 degrees below zero aloft in the area on Thursday, according to Mike Ottenweller, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Anchorage who spent some time looking into Harvey’s photo. The May sunshine was warm.
“All you need is a little bit of swirl in the winds,” Ottenweller said. Palmer’s position between the Knik and Matanuska river valleys makes for plentiful wind.
But ... that funnel reached the ground, or at least got close enough to kick up dirt. Was it a tornado?
Maybe technically, a “very, very weak tornado,” Ottenweller said. But definitely not the violent, destructive kind experienced in the Lower 48 generated by a super cell storm where the entire storm is rotating. Thursday’s funnel wasn’t even accompanied by thunder or lightning.
Cold air funnels are reported in Southcentral and Southwest Alaska once or twice a year, Ottenweller said. More extreme tornados or “tornado-like events,” as they’re called in a 2009 University of Alaska Fairbanks report, are even more unusual. State fire crews reported one over the Kenai Peninsula a few years ago.
A pilot saw a funnel cloud touch down on the ground just west of Cook Inlet in August 1999, according to the report by Ned Rozell. “In Anchorage on May 25, 1995, several people saw a ‘thin, rope funnel’ extending to the ground in the city, lifting a shed and collapsing a carport onto five cars.”
A third tornado spotted by a pilot occurred near the Western Alaska village of Chevak in July 1992. One was photographed in Kiana in Northwest Alaska 1976, according to a 1977 paper by Ted Fathauer, a former NWS meteorologist in charge in Fairbanks.
Given the low population density around Alaska, it’s possible there are more funnel clouds than the weather service hears about.
They’re photographed far more rarely, Ottenweller said. “If Mr. Warren hadn’t taken those pictures, I think we probably wouldn’t even have known about it.”
His children keep saying he’s famous, Warren said Friday afternoon.
“I’m not famous,” he said. “I happened to be lucky and be in the right place at the right time.”