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A palm husk was mysteriously floating over a Fresno street. We asked a meteorologist about it.

“I’ve seen some really creepy stuff, but nothing like this,” said Fresno City Councilmember Luis Chavez after witnessing a palm husk hovering over a Fresno street.
Fresno City Councilmember Luis Chavez
“I’ve seen some really creepy stuff, but nothing like this,” said Fresno City Councilmember Luis Chavez after witnessing a palm husk hovering in place over a Fresno street.

FRESNO, Calif. – A palm husk. Around six feet long. Floating in mid-air.

That is what Fresno council member Luis Chavez stumbled upon during a walk canvassing for votes as part of his campaign for county supervisor.

Chavez caught the mysterious floating husk on video, during a break in the rain. It looked like magic.

“I’ve seen some really creepy stuff, but nothing like this,” he said, walking all the way around the floating husk to show that there were no wires or hidden structures holding it up over the damp road.

KVPR asked meteorologist Victor Proton at the National Weather Service office in Hanford how this could happen. Proton was also surprised.

“I’ve seen two-by-fours from tornadoes in the sides of houses, straws stuck in car tires from tornadoes,” he said.

But a piece of a tree hovering above the ground?

“That’s a new one on me,” he said.

Proton also said there’s a likely explanation. It’s not witchcraft or a glitch in the matrix – despite what many commented on social media – but a weather phenomenon we’re more accustomed to seeing during dry weather.

“It’s the same process as a dust devil, we were just missing the dust,” he said.

Dust devils form when the ground heats up faster than the air above it. As the warm air near the ground rises, it creates a funnel that spins quickly near the ground but then slows and dissipates the higher it reaches into the atmosphere.

Any dust in the vicinity can get caught up in it.

It’s likely that even though the weather in Chavez’s video wasn’t warm and sunny, the patchy sunlight at the time was strong enough to rapidly heat the asphalt and create that same temperature differential in the air.

It just so happened that because it had just rained, there was very little dust–instead, the funnel picked up a piece of a nearby palm tree.

And as for a question likely on the minds of many: Why was the husk hovering in place? Proton surmises that the funnel was strong enough to lift the husk, but too weak to spin it.

Science: one. Supernatural forces: zero.

“It was just the perfect setup with the breaks in the clouds, the black top, and the palm just happening to break off and float right into that,” Proton further added. “I mean, what’s the chances of that happening? It’s very slim.”

And how slim are chances that a floating husk becomes a new Fresno meme? We’ll see.

Chavez already coined the potential catch phrase for it, at the end of his video: “Only in Fresno.”

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.