Category Archives: weather

A Tornado Outbreak in Wyoming

Wyoming is not exactly “tornado alley”. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the entire state averages only 12 tornadoes per year. Kansas, by comparison, receives eight times as many tornadoes each year despite being 15% smaller in area. Although a tornado in Southeastern Wyoming played a pivotal role in the VORTEX 2 project, Wyoming generally tends to be too dry for severe thunderstorms.

June 13th’s chase came up somewhat suddenly for me, based on a notification I had received about this outlook after being out of town, and not focused on the weather, the prior weekend. For some reason, before I even looked at anything else, weather models, discussions, etc., I had a feeling something major was going to happen.

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This day somehow felt different, right from the start.

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By 2 P.M., storm chasers were all over the roads, and at places like this Love’s Truck Stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, watching the storms begin to form and trying to determine the best course of action.

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The decision we all were faced with was which set of storms to follow. The storms forming to the North were in the area previously outlined by the Storm Prediction Center as having the highest risk for the day, and in an area with great low-level rotation. But the storms to the South looked more impressive on RADAR.

Often, we need to continue to re-realize that the best course of action is to follow our instincts, and to follow them without hesitation or self-doubt. That is what I did, opting for the storms to the North.

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It did’t feel like a typical day in Wyoming. Storm chasers everywhere. Highway signs were alerting motorists to the potential for tornadoes and large hail. Moisture could be smelled in the air. With a moderate breeze from the East South East, the atmosphere felt less like Wyoming and more like a typical chase day in “tornado alley”

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When I  caught up with the storms in Wheatland, Wyoming, hail larger than I had ever seen had already fallen. One of the good things about following a storm from behind is the ability to see hail after it has already fallen, as opposed to trying to avoid hail out of concern for safety and vehicular damage.

I stayed in Wheatland as long as possible, knowing the storm would head Northeast and I would have to leave Interstate 25. One of the disadvantages to chasing in Wyoming, as opposed to “tornado alley”, is the sparseness of the road network.

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So I sat there for roughly 20 minutes. Looking at the storm, it felt like something was going to happen. All the necessary conditions were there, and the appearance and movement of the storm felt reminiscent of other situations which had spawned tornadoes.

I took a chance, using roads I had never traveled before, hoping the roads I was following would remain paved so I could follow the storm North and East.

There was a half hour time period where I had become quite frightened. I could feel the adrenaline rush through my body as the clouds circled around in a threatening manner less than half a mile in front of me. I lacked the confidence that the road would remain paved, or that I would have a reliable “out plan” if a tornado were to form this close.

 

After lucking out with around 10 miles of pavement, I suddenly found myself driving over wet dirt, and, at 20-30 miles per hour, gradually falling behind.

Luckily, I once again found pavement, drove by some of the natural features that makes Wyoming a more interesting place to drive through than most of “tornado alley”, and once again encountered large hail that I felt the need to stop and pick up.

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Almost an hour later, and significantly farther north along highway 85, I finally caught up to the storm, just as it had dropped it’s first, and brief, tornado. And, this time, I was a comfortable distance from the thing! Unfortunately, this tornado would lift off the ground in only a few minutes.

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Not too long after, I received notification that other chasers, following the storms that had formed farther South, had seen a much more impressive tornado, closer up, and had gotten better photos (the above is not my photo).

It was a strange day. Not only because Wyoming is not the typical place to see tornadoes. It also felt strange, as I had managed to do something impressive, yet still had reason to feel like a failure.

Most storm chasing is not like it is portrayed in the movies, with people getting close to storms all the time and getting in trouble. Most days, chasers do not see one. Seeing a tornado one day out of five is a very good track record for storm chasers.

Going out on a chase and seeing a tornado of any kind is impressive. Yet, to be truly happy with my accomplishment, I had to accept the fact that there was something better out there- something I did miss out on. This is a struggle we all face, in common life situations such as jobs, relationships, events, houses, etc. We often know we have done well, but always have this idea of something that is even better out there. Knowing this can make us indecisive, which will often leave us with nothing. In the age of text messaging and social media, evidence of such options has become extremely abundant, and quite hard to escape.

In a connected world, in order to be happy with ourselves, we need to find a way to both believe in ourselves, but also be accepting of the fact that someone else, somewhere out there, has done better. For that will always be the case, and we now have instant access to that knowledge. We cannot let knowledge of someone else’s more impressive accomplishments dampen our enthusiasm for our own. Otherwise, we will likely never be content.

May 10, 2017: Funnel Cloud in Southeast Colorado

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May 10th was kind of a strange storm chasing day for me.  It was the kind of day that calls into questions a whole bunch of things for me.  What assumptions I make.  How I go about making decisions.  Both with regards to where and when to chase, as well as about life in a broader sense.

There are so many things that end up factoring into when and where people chose to chase severe thunderstorms.  I had chosen to go on this two-day chase (see day one) partially out of frustration I was experiencing back home.  It was one of those situations where I felt like it would just be good for me to do something I had not done in a while, for a change of pace, and I had yet to chase in 2017.

So, I went to chase on a Tuesday and Wednesday with only a slight risk for both days, something many people with jobs tend not to do, particularly when the outlook shifts so far away from home on the second day.

In fact, I was not even sold on chasing again on Wednesday, as leftover storms from Tuesday would prevent the area that I had originally thought would have the best dynamic setup for storms from developing the instability needed to fuel them.

I decided to stay out partially because of the more optimistic outlook from the Storm Prediction Center, and partially because I got an email from a friend, telling me he was excited about the outlook… in Southeast Colorado.

Still, I decided originally to target Southwest Kansas.  Given the outlook, the best place to be would have been well further south, at least into the Texas panhandle.  But, you know, those life considerations.  I did want to make it back to Denver that evening.

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Whenever in Western Kansas, I always kind of think the same thing.  This place is flat, but it is not as flat as Florida, or Northern Illinois.  People often assume the place is flat.  But, according to a study in National Geographic, Kansas is not even in the top 5 flattest states.

One aspect of storm chasing that is often missed by people watching storm videos, or the movie Twister, is the fact that storm chasing involves a lot of driving, and it also often involves a lot of waiting.  On many days, chasers pick a “target” location, where they believe storms are likely to form, and sit there, sometimes for hours, waiting for them to form.  Because it was unrealistic to get down to the Texas Panhandle and still get back to Denver in the evening, we chose to sit in a town called Ulysses, Kansas because my favorite weather website had analyzed another boundary near there.

Ulysses, by the way, was named after Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and 18th President of the United States.  Why a place like this cares so much about this historical figure from Galena, Illinois confuses me a bit.  But, at least the town had highways in all four cardinal directions, and an empty field with a cell tower, so we could look at weather information while we wait.

And, this requires patience, and continued belief that the right location had been chosen.   But, May 10th was not a typical day.  Storms started to form in this region, first just clouds, and then even some small thunderstorms.  I was even proud to have seen a storm  start to produce rain before the RADAR images even began to reflect it!

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Now, that’s what I call “catching initiation”.

The problem is, we caught the wrong initiation.  These storms would never amount to anything.  In fact, they were so small that when I zoomed out on a RADAR image, they were barely visible!

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It turned out that, despite the fact that some of the sites I typically look at for weather information indicated some potential, we were in “no man’s land”.  The boundary I thought was situated near the CO/KS border was actually farther West, and storms were forming … in Southeast Colorado.  So, we had to adjust, headed back into “Colorful Colorado” (although today it would be “Colorful” for different reasons).

It was there we saw the main feature of the day, a funnel cloud near the town of Lamar, CO.

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For a while it looked like it was rotating and trying to form a tornado, but from experience I know that in Eastern Colorado only 1 in 8 of these actually turn into tornadoes.

The entire day was kind of a head scratcher.  What did my friend see that I didn’t?  What did he see that SPC kind of didn’t?  Why did so many storms form north and west of where the outlook was?

Why did my the information sources I typically point to lead me kind of to the wrong place?

I also wonder if I was chasing the right way, and for the right reasons.  The weather bends to nobody’s schedule.  The weather doesn’t care about personal preferences, conveniences, one’s life situation, or ego.  We have tools that provide good guidance into what is going to occur.  And, those tools pointed to a clear spot that they were correct about, as the biggest cluster of tornado producing storms of the day formed in Northwest Texas, near Childress, crossed into Southwest Oklahoma, and produced tornadoes.  That just didn’t fit into my plan.

The chase ended up turning into somewhat of a metaphor, for life decisions in general.  When we chose to take part in an activity, of any kind, we get the most out of it when we are willing to go “all in” per say.  This is true of jobs, hobbies, relationships, you name it.  We have to be willing to adjust, and consider a whole bunch of circumstances and other factors.  But, sitting in the middle, waiting for two or more different opportunities to possibly manifest only works well for a little while.  In the end, a choice needs to be made, and even if it is not the ideal choice, the fact that a choice was made produced a better outcome than having allowed the entire day to lapse without making one at all.

Storms With Abnormal Structure

One of the things that makes this world so amazing is the fact that we never cease to encounter surprises.  No matter how well we get to know a subject, any subject, we will encounter, and observe, from time to time, that which does not fit closely into the patterns we have learned.  We will periodically be tested, in our knowledge, and forced to rethink, and once again reason out what we have seen based on our critical thinking skills and understanding of our favorite subjects.  Like the psychologist that talks to someone new and says “I have never seen this before”, these experiences rekindle the passion we have for that which we love, remind us how complicated the world really is and how little we really know, and remind us about how interesting of a place the world truly is.

The 9th of May 2017 was a confusing chase day for me.  It is one that I am still trying to figure out, much in the same way the scientific community is still trying to determine why some storms produce tornadoes and others don’t.

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The day began with a slight risk across Eastern Colorado and New Mexico, and reason to believe, based on model output and expert opinion, that it could be a decent setup for a storm chase in East Central/ Southeastern Colorado.

The day ended up being one where I followed over half a dozen storms, over the course of the afternoon and early evening, northeastward, from near La Junta, Colorado, to just north of Goodland, Kansas.

Regardless of where a storm was positioned, both relative to other storms, and relative to atmospheric boundaries such as dry-lines (the boundary between moist and dry air), which are credited with creating the lift in the atmosphere that often creates storms, all the storms would behave in much the same sort-of standard but sort-of not manner.


They would cluster together and come apart.  They had the standard boundary one would observe between the inflow and outflow portions of the storm.


Some would even show something that look like a “lowering”, which is often an indication of the mesoscale rotation that causes tornadoes.

But, these “lowerings” would show up in some strange sections of the storm, including in the front part of the storm.  This is absolutely nothing like how anyone is taught that a “supercell” thunderstorm operates.

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In the end, storms did occur, but largely outside the region SPC highlighted that morning.

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And, in the areas of Colorado and Kansas I had chased, nothing more than a couple of hail reports.  Although, I am quite certain that there was far more hail than what is shown on this map, as I recall driving through some areas where hail covered the ground, including multiple areas near Burlington, Colorado.


I watched these storms tease us all day.  Everything just seemed, well, weak.  In a typical tornado situation, these random-ish clouds that form around a storm, often referred to by chasers as “scud” (I don’t know why), rise and rotate, indicating that there is indeed, the vertical motion and rotation that produces tornadoes.  But, today, the rising and rotating motion in these storms all seemed, well, just weak.  It reminded me of a relationship, or a friendship, that just fizzles away as soon as any small change occurs.  It was not that there was any kind of real force or circumstance pulling these people apart.  It was just that whatever connection they had was not strong at all.

That is the way it was with these storms.  Something about the entire setup made them behave differently, but I throughout the evening, as I watched the final storms roll away into the sunset.  I could not formulate the full reason as to why these storms behaved so differently from a standard severe thunderstorm situation.


I am still wondering.  Often times severe thunderstorms don’t materialize because one key “ingredient” was missing.  Shear, instability, a good boundary, etc.  And those often lead to what is refereed to as a “bust day”.  It’s just sunny.  Or drizzly.

May 9th was not a complete “bust”, as there were storms to look at all day.  They likely never became severe because everything about the storm setup was just kind of weak:  Weak to moderate instability.  Border line helicity.  A sort of weak boundary.

And, just like the storms themselves, with multiple areas of quazi-rotating clouds, the atmosphere as a whole had no real focus.  Often times, severe thunderstorms draw upon air from hundreds of miles away for energy.  This produces scattered, but strong storms.  With hundreds of active storm cells, there was less energy for each individual storm.


Of course there are other theories.  After all, it could have all been the lack of low-level shear.  But, in the end, it felt as if the entire day was telling me something.  It was like a crash course in how to create, well, mediocrity.  Have only part of what you need before you proceed.  Focus on nothing- just spread yourself real thin.  And, choose to follow some of the rules, but completely disregard others.

Hiking in the Front Range in Mid-April

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April can sometimes be a tough month.  It’s a hard month to plan too far ahead of time, as there is such a wide variety of weather conditions that one can experience in many parts of North America.  There have been instances, in April, where places like Nebraska have experienced both a tornado threat and snowfall within the same day!

This is especially true in Colorado.  Over the past five Aprils (2012-2016), Denver has received snowfall of an inch or more 11 times!  At higher elevations, April snowfall can be almost twice as frequent.  Yet, over the same five Aprils, Denver reached temperatures of 80F (26C) or above 6 times, and highs exceeded 70F (21C), on average, 9 days out of 30, or about 30% of the time.

A typical challenge in April is to find hikes at lower elevations as there is often still a significant snowpack higher up.  April 8th’s snowpack exceeded 40 inches at most places above 8000′ in elevation, despite the period of warmer weather April 5-7.

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Looking primarily at start and end elevation, and for a place I have yet to hike, I selected Deer Creek Canyon, a place, oddly enough I can ride my bicycle to in just under 90 minutes.

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And, much to my surprise the trailhead is actually located at Colorado’s Center of Population (according to the 2000 census).

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The quickest route from the trailhead to the top of Mount Plymouth is roughly 2.4 miles.  With an elevation gain of about 1200 feet, this particular hike would definitely fall into the “moderate” category for difficulty.

The other surprise was encountering not just a random structure, but an entire subdivision, roughly half a mile into the hike (taking the shortest route).

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The people who live here seem to have the life!  The houses are quite large, they have a spectacular view of some pretty interesting looking red rocks and rolling hills, and easy access to hiking trails.  Oh, and they live pretty much at Colorado’s center of population.  For a while, we discussed what it would be like to live in a place like this, and whether or not we would enjoy it.  Being fairly close to Denver, I bet these homes are quite expensive.  Yet, moving to a place like this would still entail giving up some urban conveniences.

 

I had hoped to avoid snowpack and mud, and for the most part we did.  Starting the hike at about 9:45 A.M., at least 2/3 of the hike was in the sun, and those parts of the trail were dry.  Toward the top, some ares with a little bit of mud, and even a bit of slush could be found in shaded areas.  Parts of the area had received close to a foot of snow several days prior, which, despite warmth thereafter, had not completely melted in areas above roughly 6800′ that are shaded from the sun most of the day.

Whether it be on the way up to the top of Plymouth Mountain, or on the return trip to the trailhead, I would certainly recommend following the remaining part of the loop on the Plymouth Trail.

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It was in this section of the loop where we found the best views of Denver’s skyline, and found some more interesting rocks to climb on.

We also veered off the main Plymouth Trail to follow The Meadowlark trail for the final 1.5 miles down to the trailhead.  This trail traverses through forests of short trees with minimal foliage.  I have encountered these trees before, always at roughly this elevation near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  It is a unique experience, to be surrounded by trees in all directions, but to still be nearly completely exposed to the sun.  I wonder what conditions make these particular trees grow here.

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And, rather than going by the subdivision again, this trail cuts a bit farther north.  In several places, the trail overlooks the canyon that was carved out by Deer Creek.  I have previously ridden this road on a bicycle.  From the vantage point of the road, it’s hard to to truly appreciate the extent to which the rugged terrain had been carved out by a relatively small creek.

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After a period of inactivity, it felt really good just to be outdoors and active, feeling the sun for hours on end, and smelling the rocks, trees, and dirt.  As a culture, we likely spend way too much time indoors and sedentary.  Something about it just feels a bit unnatural to me- always has.  The entire duration of the hike, I just felt grateful for Colorado, the opportunities and access to so many amazing places like this.

I often tell people who are looking to visit Colorado not to come in April, as well other parts of the year are more exciting.  But, one thing I realized is that, this particular hike, mostly in the sun, with a maximum elevation of 7274′, would likely be very hot in the middle of the summer.  I can only imagine what it would be like with temperatures exceeding 90F (32C).

Many of us reserve the summer months, particularly June through September, for activities that require more travel, more planning, and more certainty.  In April, it is less worthwhile to plan more major activities, as conditions are so variable.  Thus, April is the ideal time for activities that are closer to home and more moderate in nature.  It is a time to embrace some amount of uncertainty, and think on the fly.

In pervious years, I became frustrated with Colorado in April, contemplating leaving for this period of time that is uncertain and commonly fails to deliver.  But, with uncertainty comes the excitement of the unknown, and the possibilities for new opportunities.  In life, we need a balance, between the planned and the unplanned, between familiar and the unfamiliar, and between the distant and the local.  April, and the changing of the seasons in general, ensures that we continue to calibrate this balance.

Winter’s MidPoint (in the Central Rockies)

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Although we talk quite frequently about “seasons”, the concept of a season is actually far more abstract in nature than the manner in which it is typically discussed.  Consider this: while the most frequent discussions of seasons refers to a portion of the calendar year, a “season” can also mean a series of sporting events, TV shows, or plays, or even a chapter in someone’s life.  I’ve personally been involved in “seasons” that have lasted as short as three weeks, as well as “seasons” that persisted longer than a decade!

Even when referencing a “season” in its most common manner, to reference a portion a year, there is significant variance in how it manifests.  For a lot of people “seasons” means winter, spring, summer, and fall.  However, there are parts of the world where the year is far more accurately broken out into a wet season and a dry season.  Others even create seasonal references based on specific considerations, such as “mud season” or “typhoon season”.  In a way, every group of people has developed their own way to reference seasons, based on their lifestyle, location, and interests.

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While some groups of people have defined specific dates for the start and end of each season, for most, a season is more of a feeling.  There are plenty of years, where, on a day like March 25th, someone in Minnesota may feel as if it is still winter for them while someone in South Carolina may feel firmly into the Spring season.  Likewise, year to year variance has made November in Colorado feel like winter in some years, but feel like early autumn in others.

For winter as a season, just like a season for a sports team, or a chapter in one’s life, it matters less when the technical mid-point is defined.  It is more significant to reference a middle section, or a “hey-day”.  This is the period of time after most people have fully adjusted to the season, but before the end is in sight.

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In the Central Rockies, this is the time after most skiers and boarders have worked out their early season jitters, (and the resorts have gotten pretty much all of their trails open, which usually takes until January) but before spring becomes eminent.

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It is at this point in the season, where, I believe, skiing actually becomes more fun!  First of all, snow conditions get better.

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As winter progresses, the snow pack gets deeper and more consistent.  It becomes far less likely to find bare spots, which often form in the areas where skiers and boarders make turns around trees, or in open areas where wind can blow a lot of snow around.

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Also, as winter progresses, temperatures begin to warm (making it more pleasant), and the sun stays out a bit longer.  There are plenty of places in the Central Rockies, like Vail, where, according to local CO-OP data, December is actually the coldest month of the year.

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With mountains blocking the afternoon sun, in December, many of the ski trails become completely shaded sometime around 2:30 P.M.  By the final weekend in January, the sunset is about 45 minutes later, and the sun angle is higher, adding roughly an additional hour before the trails become completely shaded.

This is the start of the best of the best, the best time to ski at some of the best ski resorts in the world.  The trails are all open, the sun is shining upon us, skiers and boarders are doing their best skiing and riding of their lives, and towns are celebrating with additional winter fun.

When a “season” is a positive one, like a fun ski season, a good music or sports career, or even a very positive experience at a University or a job, there really is nothing like that period of time in the middle.  Everything starts to feel right.  We begin to move about our days and activities with a greater efficiency, and, in some cases make a lot of progress in a short period of time.  Memories are being created, and, in most cases, we are making gains in the all important battle for our own individuality and/or sense of self worth.  We’re at our best!

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But, alas it cannot last forever.  The happiest and the saddest, the most reassuring yet the most unnerving thing about the world is the fact that all things have a beginning and an ending.  Even the greatest of experiences must come to an end, as, well, continuing to do the same thing will eventually lead to stagnation, and a creeping feeling of dissatisfaction.  The only thing we can do in periods like this is be greatful that the “season” we are currently in is an enjoyable and/or rewarding one, and do our best to make the next one positive as well.

Buried in Crested Butte

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There is such thing as too much of a good thing; too much food, too much exercise, even too much water!  While stories about people dying of water poisoning do exist, most people will experience dehydration, or too little water, many times throughout their lifetime.  Few people experience hyponatremia, or water poisoning.  So, health advocates rightly focus on advising the population to drink enough water.

The same can be said of snowfall in towns like Crested Butte, Colorado.  Like many ski towns, Crested Butte’s livelihood is at least partially dependent on receiving ample snowfall to produce good ski conditions.  So, it is rare to actually hear people in a town like this say that the wish for the snow to stop.   But, that is exactly what happened, after the town received close to 100 inches of snow (half their annual total) in a ten day period.  In fact, at one point, the ski resort actually had to close due to too much snow!  In a way, this is like the ski resort version of water poisoning.

After a couple of quiet days, 2017 has begun on a crazy note for the Western United States.  A steady stream of storms, transporting moisture from the Tropical Pacific Ocean directly into the California Coast, transformed a drought stricken state into a deluge of floods and swollen rivers in only a few days!

These storms followed similar tracks eastwards, producing heavy precipitation in parts of Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.  For the first two weeks of 2017, Crested Butte received close to eight times their normal precipitation amount!

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By Friday the 13th, the snow had slowed down, but hadn’t stopped.

 

Over Martin Luther King Day weekend, each day the weather followed a similar pattern.  Light snow would fall overnight, providing a few inches of new snow, and would linger into the morning.

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This would be followed by somewhat of a fuzzy period, where the sun appeared to be trying to come out, but fighting some kind of battle against low clouds which would reduce visibility on some parts of the mountain.

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This is a battle that the sun would eventually win after an hour or two of these in between conditions.

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Crested Butte provides an interesting ski experience.  By size, it is significantly smaller than places like Snowmass, Steamboat, and Copper Mountain.

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However, all different types of skiing can be found here, from groomers (although, with limited visibility for much of the day, conditions were not quite optimal for those true speed demons out there) to glades and bumps of all different kinds, sizes and steepness.

For advanced skiers and boarders, Mount Crested Butte is a must do!  It is possible to hike all the way to the top of Crested Butte’s signature mountain.  However, the Silver Queen Express lift provides access to all but the uppermost 287 feet of this peak.

The journey down the mountain starts out wide open, but eventually winds through a series of challenging glade (dense tree) areas, both pine and aspen.

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Gazing back at the mountain, I felt as if I had just skied down something from one of those extreme sports videos that is often shown in loops at ski shops promoting the Go Pro camera, or at some film event.

Crested Butte markets itself as having small crowds and short lift lines.  This was definitely true on Friday.  However, Saturday, the crowds began to build, and lift lines, uncharacteristic of Crested Butte, built fast.  At one point we ended up waiting 25 minutes in a lift line.
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The combination of the extreme snowfall at this particular mountain, and the holiday weekend (MLK Day) likely drew an unprecedented number of visitors to the resort.  Smaller, out of the way mountains like this one probably typically do have short lift lines.  But, with less capacity than some of the bigger resorts, increases in traffic on exceptional weekends like this one can increase wait times at lifts quicker.
Geographically, Crested Butte has a different setup that many other ski areas.
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Unlike places like Breckenridge and Park City, where the town is directly adjacent to the ski resort, the main area of town is actually roughly six miles from the resort.

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The settlement adjacent to the ski resort, which consists primarily of lodging, is referred to as Mount Crested Butte.

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This setup works out a lot better than one would expect.  We stayed at the Grand Lodge, which is nearly adjacent to the base area lifts.

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The Lodge offers spacious rooms that contain amenities like refrigerators, microwaves, a hot tub and a spa.  There is a restaurant on the main floor of the hotel and several other eating options at the base of the mountain, which is only a two minute walk away.  Those who prefer to relax in the evenings can stay nearby.

For those that want evening activities, there is a free shuttle from the base of the ski mountain into town, where there is plenty going on.

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Walking along Elk Avenue, the main road in town, plenty of people can be found, going to bars, restaurants, shops, events and festivals.  Based on all of the posters, window decals, pamphlets and signs everywhere, there seems to always be some kind of event going on in town.

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Crested Butte can also be described as “artsy”.  Saturday evening’s artwork was highly recommended by local residents.  In the vicinity of 3rd and Elk, it felt as if every third or fourth building was some kind of an art gallery partaking in the artwalk.  In fact, the large amount of snow piled between the sidewalk and the road provided one artist with the opportunity to gaze upon the town, and paint it, from a slightly different perspective.

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Crested Butte was at both its best and worst this weekend.  The snow conditions were amazing, and temperatures were actually quite comfortable the entire time.  However, the capacity, both with regards to the ski lifts, and for the town to remove snow from streets, buildings, and cars, was overloaded.

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Still, people went about their business, created and sold their artwork, partied in the hot tubs and at the bars, and kept a smile on their faces.  After this weekend, an accurate description of what a “normal” weekend in Crested Butte is like cannot be provided.   But, we don’t travel looking for “normal”.  We travel for an experience.  One that is different from what our day to day lives are.  This holiday weekend in Crested Butte was definitely a unique experience, due to the place that we visited as well as the exceptional conditions.

 

Looking Forward to Winter

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No season is the subject of speculation quite the way winter is.  Sure, people anticipate all four seasons, planning activities such as vacations, sporting events, and outdoor activities around each one.  But, there is something about the way winter is anticipated, as experiences can vary year to year in winter more than in any other season.  Every October, speculation begins to intensify.  Fear and dread clearly radiate from the voices of some, while excitement and anticipation come from others.  Most likely, this depends on one’s location, as well as preferred activities.

I spent a lot of years in the Midwest, and completely sympathize with those who dread winter, and hope for nothing more than to have their pain be as minimal as possible for the season.  Here in Colorado, on the other hand, enthusiasts of outdoor snow sports, mostly skiing and snowboarding, anticipate winter with great excitement, typically hoping that the coming season’s snowfall and snowpacks will be at least in line with seasonal averages, if not more.

As an Epic Pass skier who lives in Denver, my ideal winter would be one with plenty of snow in the mountains, particularly the resorts I ski near the I-70 corridor, but generally milder east of the mountains, where Denver is.  And, given this year’s setup, I may actually get this kind of winter that I want!

I have received quite a few questions, both from people local to Colorado, and those considering traveling here to ski in the mountains, regarding what kind of winter to expect.  Now that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has released its outlook for the season, there is no better time to give my own take on how winter 2016-17 is looking.

First, I should note that, the NOAA forecast, as well as other forecasts already made for the winter season primarily focus on one phenomenon: La Nina.  This, of course is the inverse of El Nino.  So, while El Nino winters tend to be wet to the south and dry to the north, La Nina winters will tend to be the opposite.

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This is reflected in NOAA’s graphical precipitation outlook for the winter.

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However, this year’s La Nina is likely to be a weak one.  Both El Nino and La Nina can be strong, moderate, or weak, and the predictive power of the phenomenon is limited in cases when the anomalies are weak.  In these cases, I find it useful to look at other patterns that are beginning to emerge when speculating about long-range weather patterns.

Anomalies in Sea Surface Temperatures are the most commonly used data point when predicting weather long term.  This is because the ocean retains much more heat than land or air, making it more likely that the current pattern will persist for longer.  Ocean temperatures can also have a major impact on atmospheric circulation, as is evidenced by the El Nino phenomenon itself.

When looking at current SST anomalies, three patterns emerge as having the potential to impact the weather Colorado and the rest of Western North America will experience this winter.

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First is the weak La Nina, whose impact would be more precipitation for the Northwest, but less for the Southwest.

Second is the abnormal warmth off the East Coast of North America.  This pattern emerged at the end of a summer that was hotter and drier than normal across much of the Northeast, a pattern that generally has continued, although they are currently experiencing a cold snap.  This warm anomaly, if it persists, would mostly likely lead to frequent northwesterly flow over Western North America, as the predominant pattern in winter is one called a wave #3 pattern.  This means three ridges and three troughs over the globe, a ridge to our west and a trough to our east.

The final temperature anomaly that appears to be in a crucial area are the warm anomalies off the coast of Alaska.  These warm temperatures could strengthen a phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low”, which would act to steer wet weather into the Pacific Northwest.  Under this scenario, Colorado and the interior west will likely be drier.

All three phenomenon point to, although not with too much confidence, more frequent northwesterly flow across the state.  This pattern tends to be dry in Colorado overall, but, as pointed out by Joel Gratz, is a favorable wind direction for upslope storms at ski resorts along the I-70 corridor, including Vail, Copper Mountain, and Breckenridge.

With La Nina being weak, and the other two SST warm anomalies (see map above) being in close proximity to areas of cool anomalies, there is low predictive power to this seasonal forecast.  Any scenario is still possible.  However, signs are pointing, generally, towards a dry winter for much of the west, particularly the Southwest, and a wet winter in the Northwest.  Locally, in Colorado, the most likely scenario is a mixed bag for the ski resorts, with the storms that do occur favoring the corridor of popular resorts near I-70 1-2 hours west of Denver.

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And a warm and dry winter on the East side of the Continental Divide.

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(Note: the two photos above are from the previous winter season)