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It’s been windier than usual in Colorado, and that’s a big problem

High winds increase fire danger and take a bite out of agriculture and tourism
Heavy winds unfurl the American flag outside Union Station on Sept. 20, 2019, in downtown Denver. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

How to choose the best descriptors for Colorado’s winds this year?

Roof-lifting. Flag-shredding. Tree-felling. Truck-flipping. Sandblasting. Patio-jumbling. Skin-exfoliating. Eye-watering. Highway-shrouding. Window rattling. Fire spreading.

Let’s ask a man not known for hyperbole.

“I have never, ever, ever seen wind like this,” said John Salazar, a former politician who has been weather watching at his family’s farm in the San Luis Valley for most of his 69 years. In a fit of emphasis, Salazar added another, “never ever.”

From the wind-scoured fields in southeast Colorado to the gust-buffeted vineyards of the Grand Valley, from the penthouse-shaking gales in the Denver metro area to lift-tossing blasts at ski areas, the wind lately has become one of the most talked about and maligned weather topics in a state that is famous for going with the flow of wait-five-minutes-and-it-will-change weather.

That old saw about March coming in like a lamb and going out like a lion, or vice versa, is outdated. This year, March blew in and blew out like a banshee. April went on to blow down records. May hasn’t been much calmer, but those stats aren’t compiled yet; so far, May winds are only imprinted in the minds of the wind-buffeted masses.

The Colorado Climate Center declared April the windiest on record. “Relentless” is the unscientific word the center’s monthly report used to describe the wind. The National Weather Service in Boulder called it among the windiest Aprils in two decades. The three National Weather Service offices in Colorado issued 62 red-flag warnings in April – the most since record keeping began in 2006. Last year, there were 37. Denver International Airport put April in its record books as “windiest ever.” On a single afternoon in late April, 44 flights were delayed when a “gustnado” – a heinous wind burst that develops in a thunderstorm – blew over DIA.

Wind just isn’t easy to measure

Wind is not as easy to quantify as precipitation or temperatures because wind hasn’t been tracked as long as other weather phenomena. The climate center has 130 years of data about rain, cold and heat; but less than 30 years on wind. Wind isn’t as easy to measure. Anemometers – those doohickies with three spinning cups and a flag on top of a pole – do their part. But sophisticated electronic equipment that records wind speeds around the clock is not in wide use.

“It is easy to set up a thermometer, but not to log the wind,” said Noah Newman, a research coordinator with the climate center.

What has been logged is a bit hair-raising. Forecasts of 40 mph wind gusts used to get attention. Now, those are more like breezes. The real gusts have shown up this spring in Fraser, 116 mph; Loveland Pass, 80; Boulder, 76; and Colorado Springs, 75.

The climate center tracked how many days the winds jumped above 40 mph around the state and found that poor, wind-battered Haxtun had 20 days of howling gusts. Burlington and Center came in second in the high-wind competition with 19 each.

The winds topped out on Salazar’s farm at over 100 mph as early as December, a month traditionally not known for giant gales, he said. The winds peeled off a barn roof, twisted up $128,000 worth of pivot sprinklers and landed a new gas-pump-bay cover at a nearby Antonito gas station in the middle of U.S. Highway 285.

The continuing high winds scooped up the soil from underneath the emerging grasses in Salazar’s meadows and lofted it into the air where it created dirt clouds that resembled the giant boiling cumulus piles of grit that bore down on Midwestern towns like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and York, Nebraska, in early May. On social media, the looming walls of dirt looked like scenes from the Dust Bowl.

“Wow! One Twitter user tweeted as he posted videos of the massive dirt clouds in southern Nebraska. “This looks like the 1930s.”

“Haboob” is one term for such intense dust storms, although those tend to stay south of Colorado in desert valleys. Derecho is another. Derechos are unusual, fast-moving, giant thunderstorms that spin across landscapes like giant weather-stuffed burritos that can include tornadoes hidden in the rolls of filthy wind. Those have happened in Colorado, but rarely.

Newman said when he was recently driving across the San Luis Valley he didn’t witness anything like a derecho, but he did see “ginormous dust devils the size of barns cruising across the valley.”

A semi truck overturned by high wind north of Boulder on Feb. 10, 2017. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press file)
Better to stay indoors than be sandblasted

Such winds are getting to folks.

“The wind has just been so incessant,” said retired Grand Junction meteorologist Joe Ramey. He and his wife delayed planting their usual mega garden, waited to pull the covers off their swamp coolers to keep from filling the house with dust, canceled patio dinners to instead hunker at the inside dining table, and confined bike rides to early mornings – all because of winds that barely let up for two months around Grand Junction.

Besides the most serious wind effects of wildfires, drought and structure damage, the gales this spring have also put a kibosh on some tourism. Who wants to sit on a winery patio sipping sparkling rose when the wind blows the bubbles into the firmament? How many paddleboarders are willing to take to the water when gusts are bowling over watercraft like play toys in a wading pool? What kind of fun is it when the wind turns cycling into a stationary bike experience? It’s easier to stay inside on the Peloton. Is it possible to rave about scenery that is shrouded in a brown haze of blown dirt?

A dune field at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve rises beneath the mountains near Mosca. (Thomas Peipert/Associated Press file)

Freelance photographer John McEvoy recently went to a popular recreation area in Colorado that was created by blowing sand 440,000 years ago – Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. He experienced his own sandblasting there. The howling wind stung his exposed skin and brought to mind a Dust Bowl line from Timothy Egan’s 2006 book, “The Worst Hard Times” “ … on the skin the dust was like a nail file.”

McEvoy had sand embedded under his fingernails after a head scratch. When he escaped back to his vehicle, he could hear – over the howl of the wind – the sound of sand spattering on his windshield.

Around Durango, an area all about outdoor recreation, sensitivity to the unrelenting wind has reached a peak this spring.

“We are constantly bombarded by the winds, whether hiking, cycling, or just going for a run or a walk,” wrote Jeff Givens, who publishes weather blogs under the name Durango Weather Guy. His May 7 blog was titled “Wind, Wind, and More Wind.”

Gunnison’s unofficial weather guy, retired geology professor Bruce Bartleson, aka Barometer Bruce, writes a lot about snowpack and drought, but he titled his latest weather column for the Gunnison Times, “When the Wind Blows.”

“As you have probably noticed, this has been a very windy spring,” he began.

Turbines blow in the wind at an Xcel Energy wind farm on the border of Colorado and Wyoming south of Cheyenne, Wyo. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)
Wicked dry winds roaring down the Rockies

What is causing all this bluster?

Wind, according to the National Weather Service, is “air in motion.”

Beyond that elementary school science book explanation, wind is one of the trickier and wonkier elements in the meteorological world. After all, it’s the wind – capricious and flighty.

Scouring, hair-whipping winds may not seem like it, but they are sensitive creations of Mother Nature. Subtle changes, including differences in topography, atmospheric layers and soil moisture can work together to stir up everything from gentle breezes to hurricanes.

The basic principle of warm air rising and cooler air sinking leads to changes in air pressure. Bartleson said to think of that wind pressure principle in terms of “blobs.”

When blobs of air start rising because they have been heated by the ground, air from the jet stream layer above will start to sink and fill in the space created by the rising blobs. The result is wind.

Continental air masses contribute to all that localized pushing and shoving between air blobs. As huge air masses are formed over the Earth, their temperatures and moisture content also bump each other around and cause air spirals that get all jumbled up passing over the rough surfaces of the Earth. Colorado, with its wealth of mountains, has particularly rough surfaces to spark more erratic winds.

Further blame can go to a jet stream parked high above Colorado this spring as it made its annual shift from winter to summer locations. That was set up by the infamous La Niña weather pattern caused by colder-than-normal temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean.

Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center, described April’s winds being attributable to low-pressure air systems having a near miss with Colorado to the north. That meant that Colorado didn’t get the moisture in those systems but did get the system’s “wicked dry winds” roaring down the Rockies.

Goble said a dry landscape can also contribute to winds because, when there is no water in soil to evaporate into the atmosphere, things can go all wonky in the air currents. And, thar she blows; much of Colorado is in drought conditions.

That’s where climate change may (“may” being an important caveat) come into play as a factor.

“You can never contribute one event like a very windy month, or one of anything, to climate change,” the state climate center’s Newman said. “We just know that when temperatures are rising, the weather can change.”

Wind kicks up dust on an area that was once underwater at the Boulder Harbor boat ramp in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nev. (John Locher/Associated Press file)
Maybe not ‘prairie madness,’ but the wind does wear

Whatever the reason for this spring’s winds, it is no wonder folks are cursing the blasted blasts.

Wind has long been linked with downturns in mental health. Hippocrates (of medical oath fame) wrote around 300 B.C. that winds cause people to be “frequently deranged from the phlegm that runs down into them from the head.”

Then there are the stories of pioneer women crossing the Nebraska plains who succumbed to “prairie madness” and lost their minds in the incessant howling winds. Or the Antarctic explorers who suffered something akin to derechos of the brain as they tried to weather reported sustained winds of 200 mph – “reported” because they were tough to measure when the weather stations had blown down.

In the 1980s, New York University studied whether positive ions created by winds were responsible for jumps in suicides, crimes and accidents. Anecdotally, the study linked hot dry winds around the world – foehns in Europe, sharav in Israel, Santa Ana in southern California, chinooks in the Pacific Northwest, siroccos in Italy, the ghibli of Libya and the zonda in the Andes – to human behavioral problems. That study of ion derangement didn’t go further.

“It is depressing. It does wear on you,” Ramey, the meteorologist, said.

Over in the San Luis Valley, Salazar said the same thing.

“It just creates a depression almost,” he said with his usual understatement.

Relief may be in sight. Ramey said weather maps he has been delving into show the wind easing off after June 5.

Newman said, while he can’t go with a certain date, summer is always less windy.

“We’re getting to that time of year when it can’t help but wind down,” he said.

Denver7 meteorologist Mike Nelson has added some long-term good news. In a recent forecast he said that August is the calmest month of the year in Colorado. The average wind speed for that month is 7 mph – that’s right, 7, not 107.

After this spring, 7 mph doesn’t even qualify as a wind. It hardly merits an adjective.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.