Watching one of your creations spread around the internet at lightning speeds for thousands of people to read or see can be thrilling. It’s nice to be recognized and acknowledged, but sometimes that desire goes too far and people make things up just to taste a little bit of that sweet internet fame. The weather is ripe for this kind of fakery—after all, who else on the internet can confirm exactly what you claimed to see? Fortunately, with a little bit of experience and a keen eye for detail, it’s easy to spot a faked weather image a mile away.
1. LOOK FOR THE CLOUDS IN FAKE TORNADOES.
This shelf cloud could easily be mistaken for a tornado if the bottom of the cloud on the right is obscured by buildings or trees. Image credit: Albert00 via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Tornadoes are the most commonly faked weather event that spreads on social media. It’s not hard to mistake a low, scraggly cloud for a tornado, but most of the time it’s pretty easy for an experienced eye to tell the difference. There are lots of lookalikes out there—the scud cloud is the most common. A scud is a tiny, jagged cumulus cloud that moves quickly beneath the base of a thunderstorm. Scud clouds are completely harmless; they usually form as unstable air rising into a thunderstorm cools and condenses.
Shelf clouds are also a common lookalike. A shelf cloud develops when cold air rushes away from a thunderstorm in what’s known as an outflow boundary, or gust front. The storm’s cold outflow digs up warm air like a trowel, causing it to rapidly rise and condense along the top of the boundary.
While some folks genuinely might not know the difference—if it’s not spinning, it’s not a tornado—others know exactly what they’re doing. Almost every time there's a tornado outbreak we see people passing around questionable or old tornado pictures as the real thing. It’s not just the internet they’re trolling. False tornado reports can have a real-world impact. False sightings can lead to false warnings, reinforcing the “crying wolf” effect meteorologists have to battle through every time there’s a disaster. Screaming “Tornado!” in a crowded city is even worse than screaming “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
2. BE SUSPICIOUS OF OVERLY LARGE OR ROUND HAIL.
Baseball-size hail looks nothing like a baseball—or an ice cube. Image credit: NOAA
While tornado impostors are all the rage, it’s fake hail that’s the easiest and most hilarious to spot. I tried it when I was 12. I received a do-it-yourself snow cone machine for my birthday, and we had a huge thunderstorm a few days later. In an attempt to convince everyone the storm dropped hail just a little bigger than real life, I shaved some ice and tried to make a giant hailstone in my freezer. It turned out about as convincing as you’d expect, and that’s how it always looks no matter who makes them.
Like humans, real hail is flawed. It’s hardly ever perfectly round. It’s opaque in parts and translucent in others. It’s bumpy and blobby and jagged and spiky. Real hail is wet from falling out of a thunderstorm and dirty from smashing into the ground. Most of the fake hail pictures online are created from someone freezing a water balloon. Fake hail is smooth, dry, and clean.
Making huge hail is a great way to waste water and cure boredom, but trying to pass it off as the real thing will lead to more embarrassment than anything else.
3. GOOGLE A REVERSE IMAGE SEARCH.
You know those pictures that circulate on Facebook every once in a while that try to tell you that “this is a real picture of a hurricane making landfall!” Almost every one of these photos is misrepresented or downright fake. Whenever you see a weather picture that’s too perfectly frightening to believe, especially from a questionable source, take it with a grain of salt. Chances are that tornado or hurricane or snowstorm happened years ago. If you can’t tell whether or not you’re looking at a picture of an old storm, you can use Google to conduct a reverse search for the image. If it’s original, Google shouldn’t find any earlier results.