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No, it's not a tornado. Here's the science behind dust devils in Maine

Dust devils look like tornadoes, but happen during clear and sunny days. They're usually harmless despite looking dramatic.

SHIRLEY, Maine — Bright, sunny days are exactly what we expect in Maine as June approaches.

It also is the start of severe weather season in northern New England.

Severe weather, though, means rainy afternoons and strong thunderstorms. But have you ever been out on a sunny, warm day and saw something that looked like a tornado?

That's exactly what Sarah Nichols saw in Shirley last week.

These circulations are are called dust devils, and they are different than tornadoes despite looking so similar. While they are usually harmless, they can cause damage or injuries in rare cases. There have even been a couple of recorded deaths related to dust devils, including right here in Maine.

This is the dust devil in question. It was spotted on May 12, 2022.

Believe it or not, they're fairly common, especially with the recent warm and dry pattern we've been in.

I know what you're thinking: how could a warm, dry, tranquil day result in something like this?

The answer is...heat!

Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine

The strong sun heats up the ground.

Dry and darker ground, like in a farmer's field or at a baseball diamond, allows some areas to heat more quickly than others. Dirt warms up faster than grass does, and this differential heating is what really helps these form.

Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine

As air heats up, it becomes less dense. This creates a weak area of low pressure.

Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine

Air begins rushing in to fill this "low," resulting in a weak rotation with upward motion.

Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine

The dust devil grows until it matures.

Sometimes these rotating columns of air are actually invisible. Without debris, like leaves or dust, they can be difficult to see.

Usually, though, there is enough debris around to make them visible.

Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine

While they're usually short-lived, they can sometimes last for upwards of 15 or 20 minutes.

Eventually, the warmer air runs out and cooler air begins to rush in. This will stop the upward motion and ultimately causes the dust devils to fizzle.

Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine

The big difference between a dust devil and tornado is that a tornado is associated with a thunderstorm. Dust devils happen on bluebird days with lots of sunshine.

While they can happen any time of year, they are most common in the warmer months and happen on dry days. In the winter, they can sometimes pick up snow creating a "snow whirlwind" as they form and mature.

In most cases, dust devils are short-lived and pretty weak.

Even a weak dust devil can sting a bit if it's tossing up gravel! Take a look at this message I received from Britt Holmstrom-Sali, outlining their experience after getting caught in a dust devil outside of Benton Falls, Maine.

In rare instances, though, they have caused damages.

Sometimes larger debris can be picked up by them and tossed around. That can lead to injuries, or even death.

There was a death in Lebanon, Maine, that occurred on May 19, 2003 (exactly 19 years from when I'm writing this).

A dust devil formed and took the roof off an autobody. This resulted in the building collapsing, resulting in the death of the person inside.

This specific dust devil actually holds a Guinness World Record for deadliest dust devil, along with one in Wyoming.

Again, this tragic event is the outlier to most dust devils. 

If you want to see one, head out to a field on a dry and hot day, especially with lower humidity.

With a bit of luck, you'll see a harmless one spin up and get some awesome video!

(And if you do get that awesome video, send it in on the "Near Me" section of our app. I want to see it, and it might even make it on TV!)

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