Tag Archives: weather

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 2 The Storm

We woke up to a light rain tapping on the tent. The tiny amount of blue sky present in the morning quickly disappeared. While some days start off rainy only to quickly give way to sunshine, it was obvious this would not be one of those days. It would not be an optimal day for adventure.

Still, we tried to do our previously planned day hike to a couple of other alpine lakes. The rocks and lack of trees in the areas, combined with the cloudy skies, breeze and chilly rain made me think of the Scottish Highlands. I’ve never been there, but have seen photos which always make them appear something like this.I kind of always imagine cloudy weather as well.

The rain started to pick up as fog made previously visible mountains disappear in the background. We retreated to the tent.

As the rain picked up, the cold rain, along with a moderate, started to remind me of how it often felt walking down 5th Avenue (in New York City) during Christmastime. At higher elevations it snowed.

We would spend several hours inside the tent, trying to warm up and dry off. I kind of enjoyed having a chance to relax a bit and read (once I was able to dry off). There is something about having no other options, being stuck, that liberates us from this drive (or expectation) to make the most of every day we have. It feels like a modern day American obsession. I’m not sure if it is our work culture, competitive nature or something completely different that makes it hard for us to just relax. I’m probably even worse than most Americans. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to waste and entire day, not doing anything interesting or productive, and be okay with it. However, every time I try to do that, I get jittery sometime around 10 A.M.

The sun would eventually come out, sometime around 2:30 P.M.

I showed even more versatility by taking part in an activity I seldom do… fishing.

It even felt warm out for an hour or two.

We brought the fish back to our cooking area (which needs to be away from our campsite because of bears), filleted the fish and cooked our rice … just in time for another storm.

And I mean JUST IN TIME. As soon as everything was cooked, we rapidly and haphazardly put everything away in order to scurry back to the tent with our food to avoid lightning. While the cold wintry rain in the morning was just incredibly uncomfortable, the lightning in the evening was actually potentially dangerous. As summer was coming to an end in the mountains, we experienced nearly all seasons in one day.

It was the most intense thunderstorm I have ever experienced from inside a tent. It was the kind of thunderstorm where the sound of thunder follows the lightning nearly instantaneously making a startlingly loud noise! We could feel the vibration that only comes when the lightning strikes are incredibly close. It even hailed!

2020 is the gift that keeps on giving. It feels like a passive aggressive genie in a bottle, repeatedly giving me what I want but finding the most obnoxious possible way to grant the wish.

Me throughout the 2010s: Our jobs need to be more flexible. The rigid 9-to-5 schedule is outdated.

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I shall create a global pandemic that will force everyone to work remotely out of fear of killing their loved ones with a really intense flu. That will lead to workplace flexibility.

Me in August 2020: There is drought, fires and smoke from California to Colorado. We need rain!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I’ll make it rain! But, I’ll make it rain on the middle day of your backpacking trip, while you are not in your home or even able to get back to your car. Oh, and I’ll give you both cold wintry rain and scary thunderstorm rain.

Maybe it’s not just me.

Countless people in the 2010s: The rent is too damn high!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): An economic depression, violence and mass exodus from your city will lower your rent. You’re welcome.

Keystone in Summertime

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It’s a place I had only seen in wintertime, covered in snow, often packed with skiiers.

Summertime shows the place in a whole new light….

Water from the top of the mountain, ether from frequent afternoon thunderstorms or residual snowmelt channels through creeks emptying into the Snake River.

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Mountain bikers are the primary users of the mountain, loading their bikes on the ski lift and riding down trails that wind through the trees.

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While the trails are different, they actually use the same rating system as is used for skiers and snowboarders in the winter.

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And, of course there are the hills, rocks and trees, a lot of which is altered or even covered up by the snow in the wintertime.

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It was a whole new perspective on a place I had been to hundreds of times, showing trails, rocks, and even small bushes I had been unaware of due to winter snowpack.

Perhaps the most breathtaking view of all was the one overlooking Dillon Reservoir at the start of what in the winter is the Schoolmarm trail.

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This overlook, at this moment in time, in an abnormally wet year where the ground appears greener then normal with greater than average residual snowpack at the top of the mountains, felt even more serene than it does in wintertime.

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And, of course, there are the other activities.

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Summertime presents an interesting challenge for ski resorts. Obviously, there are no snow sports. Resorts can either shut down for the season (as some do) or try to bring in visitors for summer activities. The ones that chose to operate in summertime often put on other kinds of events and festivals to try to attract more people.

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The music at the wine and jazz festival was quite impressive. I really enjoyed some of the acts. People pay one flat fee for unlimited wine. Unsurprisingly, much of the crowd was drunk by late afternoon.

One draw to coming up to places like Keystone at this time of year is the weather. Colorado’s most populated cities can get quite hot in the summer.

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The mountains are significantly cooler. Advertisements for summer activities at ski resorts often highlight pleasant average summertime temperatures. However, summertime weather in the mountains can also be chaotic. In complex terrain like this, thunderstorms often form in the afternoon. Where they form changes from day to day based on some fairly small scale aspects of the wind patterns in the mid levels of the atmosphere.

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Therefore, whether or not a specific location in the mountains gets a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, although there is a scientific reason for it, can feel like luck. Adventurers generally just prepare for the possibility through some combination of monitoring the clouds and planning to summit mountains in the morning and return to tree line shortly after noon.

If recent traffic patterns on I-70 is any indication, despite the fact that the ski resorts themselves are far less crowded, Coloradans are headed up to the mountains to cool off and take part in summer activities.

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They are mostly headed to different places, sometimes out in the true wilderness of the Central Rocky Mountains.

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This is one place where it becomes undeniable that conflicts exist between corporate and human concerns. People choosing to go to different places in the summer, where they can have different experiences and often make a deeper connection with nature and themselves is a good thing for humanity overall. However, there are definitely those that stand to earn more money by getting more people to the resorts.

In theory organizations, including corporations exist to serve a purpose. I believe this is generally true in real life as well. Those that operate resorts like Keystone play a major part in encouraging people to get outdoors and seek adventure, most definitely improving human happiness. All ski resorts have a purpose, but one that is far greater in wintertime than any other time of year.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Keystone in the summer. Seeing how the place looks in the summer was also amazing. However, I will likely visit other places with what remains of the summer of 2019. The size of the crowds at Keystone Resort in mid-July, to me, don’t feel like a number that needs to be improved upon. To me, it just feels like the right size for what humanity needs at this part of the seasonal cycle of life.

 

Memorial Day Tornados in Eastern Colorado

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2018 has not been an active year for tornados. With May, the most active month for tornados nearly complete, only 416 tornados have been reported.

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This is, by any scientific measure, over 35% lower than the long-term average, and according to the Storm Prediction Center, in the bottom quartile for tornado activity.

This Memorial Day storm chase almost came as a surprise. First of all, I typically travel Memorial Day Weekend, as does a lot of people. Also, with the season being as inactive as it has been, there had been plenty of days throughout May where forecast models looked promising for a good storm chase several days to a week ahead of time, only for the atmospheric setup to never materalize.

While some aspects of weather forecasting have become quite accurate, forecasting weather beyond a few days, and forecasting weather phenomenon on a small spatial scale remains a challenge. Thus, those that long to see what is perhaps nature’s most violent storm, tornados, can do one of two things. They can set aside a period of time, typically sometime either in May or early June to go out and look for storms.

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Several companies offer this service, a set 7 to 10 day chase in vans like these ones. However, even in May, there is no guarantee that any kind of active thunderstorms will be happening, let alone tornados. Those that have ever chased in this manner end up becoming familiar with all sorts of oddball attractions in the Great Plains!

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There are also those that keep an eye on weather outlooks, deciding to go when the setup looks good. This requires some often last minute decision making, and sometimes chaining plans. This is what I did on Memorial Day. A day that started out slowly, with brunch in Cherry Creek, quickly transitioned to traveling due east out of Denver, straight into the storm.

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Still, even if this tactic guarantees that there will be activity, it does not guarantee that there will be tornadoes. There is still some element of luck to it.

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Near the tiny town of Cope, Colorado, the sky had an interesting orange hue to it with what appeared to be a funnel cloud. This can actually happen quite frequently without an actual tornado being spotted.

At that point in time, around 4:30 P.M., we made two decisions that would put us in the right position to view the tornados. First, we decided to get to the East side of the storms before they became big. Second, we decided, due to Eastern Colorado’s sometimes limited road network, to actually use dirt roads, something that can, at times, be dangerous in the case of a flood.

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The first tornado, Southwest of Cope, we saw kind of in the distance.

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We traveled south, along a dirt road, to get a closer view of it, however, we eventually saw it dissipate.

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Still, the entire time, cloud formations indicated a strong low-level rotation, conditions necessary for tornado development. There was even a “landspout” and several dust devils between the storms.

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Before long, two new tornados were spinning up, just a bit to the South and East of where we had seen the first one.

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The strange thing about these storms was that they were first visible on the ground, with clouds of debris extending outward from both emerging funnels.

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Watching them develop proved quite remarkable. First the funnels showed, then we actually got to see the darker clouds of debris around the funnel fill in from the ground up, forming two side-by-side fully mature tornados.

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The funnels were on the ground for about half an hour.

They gradually evolved, taking on different forms, giving way to yet another tornado, a bit further South and East, near a tiny town called Vona, CO.

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As a person with many interests, I only end up storm chasing several days per year. In the past several years, this was by far the most successful chase day. Even for the most knowledgable chasers, just seeing a tornado constitutes a successful day. Seeing four of them, as well as being able to watch tornados form is nothing short of amazing!

I am also always glad to see when tornados are not actually impacting people where they live. One thing I notice is that storm chasing continues to become more and more popular with time.

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There were several instances where we encountered large groups of people, just like this one, looking at and taking pictures of tornadoes. This is all good, but I do concern myself with how the people who live in these areas perceive this activity. We storm chasers should never be delighting in the destruction of anyone’s home or town, and I am concerned that the perception as such could lead to some resentment among the people who live in tornado prone areas, particularly the Great Plains, which far Eastern Colorado is part of.

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Not only was it one of the most successful chases of my life, but it also was quite possibly the most efficient chase I have ever been a part of. It started after what turned out to be a 90 minute brunch, and that evening I was back in Denver seeing a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater.

The perfect storm chase, like the perfect setup when it comes to things like jobs, relationships, communities and homes, results from the intersection of good decisions and good luck. The former can be controlled. The later cannot. Just as I have been on many other storm chases where my group made all the right decisions but still did not see any tornados, the same can happen in all of our pursuits. All we can do is continue to go out there, make the right decisions, execute properly, knowing that the luck will eventually materialize even if it takes several more tries.

 

Welcome to Summer

Week after week is spent focusing on some sort of life endeavor; a major project at work, a personal improvement initiative, a diet, starting a business, preparing for kids. Meanwhile, the world around us continues to tick. All of a sudden we realize that everything has changed. A jacket is no longer needed in the morning. Darkness does not set in until well after 8 P.M. Every evening, the neighborhood kids are outside being lively. While our focus had been elsewhere, the subtle process of seasonal transition has transformed the world around us. It is now summer!

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Although it has felt like summer, here in Colorado, for a few weeks, in the United States, Memorial Day is often referred to as some sort of unofficial beginning to summer. With most businesses not providing time off for the Easter holiday, and Cesar Chavez Day being a holiday in only two states, for many, Memorial Day is the first day off in several months. I have even had a pervious employment situation where there were no holidays between New Years Day and Memorial Day.

With vacation shaming running rampant in this country, causing Americans to collectively leave over 700 million vacation days unused annually, it is easy to imagine countless American who spent the three months leading up to Memorial Day doing little else besides work and tending to home and family needs.

2018 in particular was a year where the Spring Season was easy to miss, as winter felt quite persistent across much of the country through April.

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Chicago even reported measurable snow four times in the Month of April!

Many experienced the kind of weather they typically associate with Spring only briefly before summer-like conditions spread across the country.

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By Memorial Day, 100 degree temperatures were reached in Minneapolis, while the Florida Panhandle was experiencing the start of the tropical storm season.

While it is completely understandable why some people were completely blindsided by the start of summer, it feels, in a major way, unnatural. Seasonal cycles are embedded in how our culture developed, flushed and progressed. They can be seen in the way our calendars were constructed, the holidays we celebrate, the traditions we all enjoy and even in art and music. Perhaps most importantly, they guarantee that we must periodically stop what we are doing, and move on to a new set of experiences and a different kind of energy. In a way, they guarantee progress.

All the major biomes in the Colorado Rocky mountains were alive this Memorial Day weekend, as if they knew this Memorial Day deadline for the start of summer existed and needed to be complied with.

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The Aspen trees glowed an almost neon green in the bright sunshine, contrasting with the pine trees in some places, while clustering up, highlighting their own light gray branches in others.

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Somewhere slightly above 10,000 feet (3.05 km) in elevation the forest transitions to densely packed evergreens.

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Nourished from the melting of the residual snow at higher elevations, they shade the ground below them with a raw power almost feels as if they are, collectively, the protectors of the mountains.

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Along the trail, they reveal only what they want to reveal. Periodically, they reveal small previews of what is to come, building suspense and creating an experience.

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Above the trees, the remnants of the snowy season, which is any time of year besides summer at 12,000 feet (3.6 km) in elevation, fades away slowly transitioning the energy of the surrounding rocks, bushes and grass.

In the modern world, summertime for many feels like a time to thrive. It is often the busiest time of year. Surprisingly, this appears to be true for both weather dependent activities such as travel and recreation, as well as indoor ones. It is also the time of year where more is possible. Long days, less travel hazards, and in many cases less discomfort when outdoors gives us the chance to both let in and out a deep breath and smile, but also take our activities to the next level.

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Many of us did not keep our New Years resolutions, some could have even had their goals and desires forgotten about over the past few months. However, the start of a new season, indicated by the coming and passing of Memorial Day weekend, provides no better opportunity for each and every one of us to re-orient ourselves towards what we really want out of life. The coming season may be the best time to make a change- to chose life!

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As the floodwaters gradually recede, I look forward to the calm feeling the warmth of summer provides. I look forward to the energy of cities and towns alike, flooded with people walking to the park, walking their dogs a little longer, and to festivals and cookouts. I look forward to the energy it produces in each and every one of us, inspiring us to leave the computer screen, put down the remote, and go outside an play a little. I look forward to the brightness of the sun lightening the hearts of all of us. I look forward to seeing the lives that will be transformed by summer’s energy!

This is January

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A week after New Years, Dillon Reservoir, which sits at a little over 9,000 ft (or about 2750m) in elevation is still partially open (as in not ice covered). Little to no snow is to be seen on the hills that surround the lake. By this time of year, they typically display a bright white color of undisturbed snow. The very persona of the region is different, particularly on a cloudy afternoon such as this one. It doesn’t really feel like winter. Yet, it is hard to attribute this scene to any other season of the year.

It is still hard to wrap the mind around the fact that at almost the exact same time last year, Central Colorado was getting pummeled, with feet and feet of snow.

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This isn’t a complete climate catastrophe. There are still people hitting the slopes.

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But, the conditions are less than ideal. Half the trails remain closed. Some of the ones that are open have sketchy parts, where it is common to encounter rocks, branches, and blades of grass. Also, disappointingly, some of the best places for skiing, in wide open areas where it is easier for snow to blow off the mountain, are simply unnavigable.

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Visual reflections of the warm and dry start to winter show up all over Colorado. The open plains in places like the San Louis Valley, and even South Park (elevation near 10,000 feet) appear all but snow free. The snowpacks on the higher peaks appear shallow and inconsistent.

Colorado isn’t the only place experiencing a completely different winter from last year. After a relatively mild winter last year, the Midwestern and Eastern states experienced a complete turnaround at the end of 2017 into the start of 2018.

Chicago experienced a record tying 12 day span where temperatures did not exceed 20F (-6C).

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While cold temperatures crippled a typically vibrant city, on the other side of the lake, the continuous flow of cold air over Lake Michigan produced steady and large amounts of Lake Effect Snow.

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Accumulating snowfall occurred as far south as Florida, for the first time since 1989!

A lot of people who planned ski trips to the Rocky Mountains, or trips to the Southeast to escape the cold are disappointed. Some may speculate as to why, and wonder if this is part of some troubling long-term trend.

While it is completely understandable why someone would see bare ground at 11,000 feet above sea level in January and be concerned, it is important to remember that this is just one place, at one point in time. Last year those same places were getting pummeled with snow. Also, at that same point in time, it was snowing in places like Tallahassee and Charleston, cities where it snows less than once a decade!

What many are experiencing, when comparing how this winter has begun, with last winter, is variance, in a somewhat extreme form.

“Normal” weather, if there is such a thing, is often the result of large-scale weather patterns that vary and progress. This leads to experiences like two rainy days in a week, periodic snow in the mountains, or temperatures ranging between 15 degrees below and 15 degrees above the long-term average. Essentially, what people expect.

The start of 2018 is an example of a period of time when the weather pattern had become persistent. These are the times when extremes are experienced. The persistent pattern at the start of 2018 kept most of the west warm and dry while driving cold air, straight from the arctic right into the eastern half of the continent.

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Likewise, one year ago, there was also a persistent pattern – one that looked quite different, and produced different extremes. One year ago, a strong jet off the Pacific Ocean formed, transporting large amounts of moisture straight into California, Utah, and Colorado. These storms played a large role in ending a long-term drought in California.

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None of this is to dismiss the adverse effects of either extreme weather events or long-term trends in temperature or precipitation. If the mountain tops of Colorado remain dry, it could have an adverse effect on the water supply in many place in the west, and could also indicate high fire potential next summer. Likewise, a changing climate is something that needs to be dealt with. However, it should be dealt with in a manner that is appropriate, which means considering data on a larger scale, and multiple perspectives before taking action.

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While outdoors, experiencing conditions both normal abnormal, the only thing that can be done is to dress appropriately, try to ski around those rocks and branches, and pause to take in the experience while it is happening.

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.

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)