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Monday, October 18, 2021

Column: Why does it rain fish?

On Feb. 25, residents of Lajamanu, Australia reported seeing “hundreds and hundreds” of live fish fall from the sky into their front yards. The next day, again in the late afternoon, another school of fish descended upon the small town. Scientists identified the fish as speckled perch, a species common in the sea about 500 miles from Lajamanu. They thought perhaps a tornado-like “waterspout” picked up fish from the ocean and dumped them in the outback, yet no tornado was reported in the area.

After years of falling-animal stories – from Exodus to Magnolia – the waterspout theory lives on. But are waterspouts strong enough to pick up animals? And how can we explain the occasions where non-ocean-dwelling creatures, like catfish and frogs, tumble from the sky?

“I really don’t know how to answer that,” said Dr. Robert Fovell, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UCLA.

Fovell knows a lot about the mechanics of waterspouts, but clearly puts “falling fish” in the file with Bigfoot and Nessie. Still, he patiently explained how waterspouts work.

When two “air masses” of different densities (a.k.a. different temperatures) meet, they try to keep moving in the directions they were headed. Fovell said warm air and cold air interact “like oil and water.” The clash between two traveling air masses can create a push-pull effect that eventually turns into a rotating column of air.

“Low clouds with horizontal rotations spin up these funnel-type things,” Fovell said. “Those are the sort of things that form weak tornadoes over land and waterspouts over water.”

Though they can damage boats, waterspouts usually die out when they move above land.

Fascinating stuff, but I still wondered about the falling fish.

Dr. Shu-hua Chen, associate professor of meteorology at UC Davis, thought perhaps hurricane winds, not waterspouts, were responsible for reports of wayward perch.

“[Hurricane winds] would be potentially strong enough to pick up a fish,” Chen said.

She laid out a possible scenario: A wave throws a fish into the air and then a strong gust of wind picks up the fish and carries it to shore. While this image makes me think of a Monty Python-esque fish slapping, it doesn’t explain the “hundreds” of fish spotted in an area of Australia with no hurricanes.

There are, however, some freaky-falling-stuff incidents that we can explain.

In 2001, a shower of “blood” was reported in the Kerala region of India. While some hypothesized that the red hue came from an exploded meteor (or extraterrestrial cells), researchers determined that the color was caused by airborne spores from a species of algae.

In June of 1997, frogs were seen falling from the sky in Culiacan, Mexico. The cause was probably a tornado that whipped-up some pond water during a storm, but there are other causes of falling-frog reports.

Many cases of “raining” frogs are probably a result of massive frog migrations. People see swarms of frogs suddenly appear and assume (because they’ve heard previous stories) the frogs fell from above. Frogs are known to migrate in wet weather, but scientists in Italy have also documented the migration of frogs away from areas where earthquakes was about to strike. Their theory was that frogs could sense changes like seismic tremblings. I mentioned the frog/earthquake thing in this column before, but I just think it is so dang cool.

The earthquake/frog phenomenon was also observed in China before an earthquake hit in 2008. There are great photographs of confused bicyclists swerving around the herds of amphibians. This association between earthquakes and frogs could also explain why “falling” frogs are a feature of apocalypse-style stories like the “plague” of frogs in Moses’ Egypt.

And watch out if you hear about “falling” catfish – it’s probably just another case of a mistaken assumption. Catfish can actually use their pectoral fins to walk on land as long as they stay moist. On July 18, 2008, catfish were seen shuffling down a street in Florida after heavy rains flooded the sewer system and the fish crawled out.

Then there was the case on March 2, 1876 when flakes of animal flesh reportedly fell on a farm in Kentucky.

There are some mysteries I’d rather not investigate.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT wonders if her readers are as nerdy as she hopes. If you are one of the dozens of people who saw the movie Magnolia, e-mail Madeline at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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