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Fake and Overused Weather Photos: Avoid Sharing These Images Next Time You See Them On Social Media

By Sean Breslin
Published: September 15, 2014

Social media has been a beneficial tool for weather forecasters in the 21st century. It allows meteorologists to give the public advance warning about a dangerous weather event, and, once the event begins, news gatherers use social media to quickly share images and video of a damaging storm system.

Conversely, social media has also made it easier to spread a lie. All it takes is one person to find an old picture or video, rebrand it as current and share it to Facebook or Twitter. Then it has the potential to go viral all over again.

Hurricanes give these fake photos a high-profile platform to resurface. In fact, we've already seen a few surface that claim to be from Hurricane Odile, but they aren't. Before you share the next striking, unbelievable image this hurricane season, we want you to know how to spot a phony.

Spotting fake photos isn't easy, but it's slightly simpler when abiding by one maxim: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. As for recycled weather photos that came from a past event, websites like Tineye and Google Image Search can help pick out reused images that were posted on the Internet long ago. To use Tineye or Google Image Search, just save the photo in question and upload it to either site. They will tell you if that photo has been previously shared on social media.

Since September is the peak of hurricane season, now is the perfect time to show you how quickly fake storm photos can spread. Here are seven of the photos we've seen in the past that are likely to be shared again.

1. This Rotating Supercell Hovering Over, Well, Just About Anything

Take a close look at this photo and study the structure of this rotating supercell. This image is particularly tricky because people have been known to take the storm's structure and superimpose it over landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty during Superstorm Sandy. It is also placed over different parts of the Plains during severe weather outbreaks, so keep an eye out for this image – and if you see it, don't share it.

The original photo was taken by Mike Hollingshead, a storm chaser who runs the website Extreme Instability. Since then, the image has been copied and Photoshopped during multiple severe weather events.

2. Tornado and Lightning Near the Oil Rig

This is a photo we receive frequently during severe weather season. Basically, any time there's a nighttime tornado report, this photo will be passed around on social media as if it were a brand-new photo. It isn't. The National Weather Service posted the original photo from 1991, and the oil rig was Photoshopped into the image at a later date.

3. The Ever-Reappearing Funnel Cloud

Nearly every time there's a tornado outbreak, this photo is sent to us on Twitter and passed off as brand-new. It appears to be a massive twister, about to destroy everything in the picture. This image isn't Photoshopped; What you see in this picture actually happened, and it's easier to trace back to the origin than most overused weather images.

Lori Mehman captured this photo on June 10, 2008 in Orchard, Iowa, as confirmed by the Associated Press. This is likely a funnel or wall cloud, not a tornado, and it left very little damage. Yet it has become the go-to image for tornado "witnesses" who want to tell the world they just saw a huge tornado. Don't fall for it.

4. Crowded Photos Are Usually Fake Photos

If there's more than one kind of crazy weather phenomenon occurring in a photo, it's probably fake. More than one tornado in a single area is rare, though not impossible. Three lightning bolts striking at the same time in nearly the same spot is rare, too. But three lightning bolts striking behind a pair of twisters? That's too good to be true.

The lightning bolts were captured in what was likely a composite image by Daniel Loretto on Aug. 14, 2010, according to Reddit user "MrDorkESQ." The storm occurred in Graz, Austria, and there were no tornadoes accompanying those lightning bolts.

5. The Shark That Only Shows Up During Hurricanes, All Over the Atlantic Ocean

This shark was spotted swimming along a street in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Irene in 2011, then made an appearance 14 months later in the New York City subway when Superstorm Sandy rushed ashore. You guessed it – the shark isn't always in the wrong place at the wrong time, it's just Photoshopped in there.

The shark was originally photographed in a 2005 issue of Africa Geographic, so if you see photos of a shark that looks like this one, swimming in an unlikely location during a storm, it's probably not a real photo.

6. Ironic or Comical Images Are Usually Fake

A large cross falling through the roof of an adult store with Paula Deen guiding it? That's a pretty obvious Photoshop job, but it gets a little less clear when you remove Deen from the image. The photo in the tweet below was shared hundreds of thousands of times during last week's tornado outbreak in the South, and many of those who shared it thought it was a real image. 

A good rule of thumb with funny or ironic photos is that they're probably fake.

7. Tornado Gobbling Up a Rainbow

Stop. Just ... stop.

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