ST. GEORGE-Sunday was a day of funnel clouds and other high wind events in all five southern Utah counties and points just south.
Of these events, one was definitely a tornado. The others, not so much… but the jury is still out.
The confirmed event occurred 22 miles southeast of Littlefield, Arizona in an unoccupied flat area of Mojave County behind Mount Bangs. The tornado was seen from Littlefield as well as Mesquite, Nevada and Interstate 15.
The National Weather Service said the tornado was a waterspout similar to the one that occurred in St. George near Tonaquint Middle School. August 11. Like this tornado, the Weather Service measures the Mojave County tornado as an EF-0 on the Improved Fujita Scale (EF).
“It’ll go as an EF-0 if there’s no damage to assess,” said Dan Berc, meteorologist in charge of warning coordination with the Las Vegas office of the National Weather Service. “The indications are that it was not such a severe tornado.”
EF-0 tornadoes are 40 to 72 mph, according to the National Weather Service, and capable of “some chimney damage; broken tree branches, uprooted shallow rooted trees, damaged road signs.
Landspouts, which were not classified as a type of tornado until 1985, differ from traditional Midwestern tornadoes in that they form from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Similar to dust devils, warmer ground air circulates over the ground and is sucked into the clouds above, creating stronger winds and eventually spinning.
“It’s a slightly different process than what we see in Oklahoma or Kansas, but it was still very impressive,” Berc said.
Images and video sent to St. George News readers show the waterspout beyond the mountains east of Littlefield. In an image, the funnel is pronounced and wide. In a submitted video, the waterspout is accompanied by another funnel cloud that appears to form like a traditional tornado – from top to bottom – but never reaches the ground below.
Berc said the tornado warning for the Mesquite and Littlefield areas was the first since 2007. Since 1950, as long as such records have been kept, there have been no tornadoes in Mesquite and 14 in total in Clark County.
Berc said another event between Moapa and Apex, Nevada on Sunday near Interstate 15, initially suspected by some residents to be a tornado, was “certainly just a high wind speed event.”
Cannonville event: Not a tornado?
Also on Sunday, some sort of high wind event ripped the roof off a house in Cannonville, Garfield County.
Local authorities called it a tornado, although neither they nor anyone else said they saw an actual funnel cloud.
The National Weather Service has since called the incident a “wet microburst” with speeds up to 70 mph, KSL.com reported Monday evening.
Earlier in the day, Alex Desmet of the National Weather Service’s Salt Lake City office said experts would take one more look.
“We know there’s been wind damage, whether it’s a tornado or straight-line wind,” Desmet said.
Without visual or radar evidence, Desmet said meteorologists will determine with certainty whether a tornado hit Garfield County based on witness accounts and the damage seen on the ground.
Whether it was a tornado or not, the 70 mph gusts were equivalent to an EF-0 tornado like the ones that struck near Littlefield and Tonaquint.
Do tornadoes happen more locally?
Between the Tonaquint event earlier this month and Sunday’s incidents, it might appear that tornado weather is occurring more often locally.
Overall, southern Utah, southern Nevada and northwestern Arizona are ranked in the lowest risk category for tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service. Areas like parts of Southern California, Flagstaff and Phoenix in Arizona, and Duchesne County in Utah are considered higher risk.
In June, the first EF-2 tornado in Utah since 2002 hit duchesne countydamaging trees and not much else.
At least statistically, there has been an increase in tornadoes in the Five Counties area of southern Utah over the past two decades. According to National Weather Service records, there were four tornadoes in the area between 1950 and 2000. Since 2000, there have been seven.
At the same time, southern Utah also became more populated around this time, and radar technology for detecting tornadoes also improved significantly.
Berc said there is not enough data to confirm whether tornadoes occur here more frequently. But he said something more abundant now, besides people, is the ability to quickly photograph and get video of possible tornadoes via cellphones.
“A lot of times it will happen in such rural areas, we never hear about it,” Berc said. “But these days everyone is a photographer so you see him more often.”
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