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A meteorologist saw a ‘very rare’ occurrence in Owyhee County Friday. What was it?


GIVENS HOT SPRINGS (Idaho Statesman) — As an unusual cold storm system encroaches on residents this Memorial Day weekend, a National Weather Service meteorologist spotted another rare occurrence on Friday: a tornado.

Spencer Tangen, who works out of the Weather Service’s Boise office, was driving south on Highway 78 near Givens Hot Springs, in Owyhee County, about 5:15 p.m. when he came upon a weak tornado moving across the highway, blowing sage brush and other debris around in its circular path.

Tangen estimates the twirling winds had speeds of about 65 to 75 mph, which categorizes the squall on the lowest tier of the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures the severity and damage potential of tornadoes.

“It definitely surprised me to see it out there,” Tangen told the Idaho Statesman on Saturday. “It’s very rare that you see anything like that here in Idaho.”

While more common in Eastern Idaho, Tangen estimated there are only a couple of tornadoes registered per year in the entire state.

This one occurred along the boundary of a thunderstorm system. With strong winds in one area and calm in another, winds can sometimes begin to spin, Tangen said. He compared it to a pinwheel, which spins when hit with air from one direction.

The flows Tangen saw were not strong enough to create the archetypal funnel shape of a tornado that comes down from the clouds. He said weaker flows like this can sometimes also be classified as gustnados.

“So far we haven’t seen or heard of any damage to any structures or trees,” Tangen said.

The weak tornado, which was on the ground about 15 minutes, moved east across the Snake River and dissipated, according to a Weather Service tweet.

This holiday weekend, Tangen said that it’s possible — but not likely — that Idahoans could see other similar wind systems.

In the event of a severe tornado, people are advised to seek shelter from debris in a basement or inside a room without windows, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re in your car, seek shelter in a nearby sturdy structure, according to the Weather Channel.

If there isn’t time, pull over and crouch down below the windows of the car, or leave your car and seek shelter in a ditch below the level of the road and a ways away from the vehicle.

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