May 13, 2022 | NEWS | By Leigh Walden | Photo by Sydney Morris
Warmer temperatures are coaxing more people outside, but massive windstorms, now frequent in Colorado Springs and along the front range, are making the experience less pleasant, and in some cases, less safe. However, the question of whether or not wind is getting worse in Colorado is contested, mostly due to improper procedures for recording wind and a lack of records about wind in the state.
Wind occurs when warm pockets of air that are being heated from the Earth’s surface expand and rise. At the same time, cooler and denser air from above switches places with the warm air. In Colorado, the Rocky Mountains are an added factor. The mountains disrupt wind patterns, resulting higher than national average winds throughout the state of Colorado.
To compound that, Colorado sits at a particularly active part of a jet stream, meaning “geostrophic winds that form near the boundaries of air masses with different temperatures and humidity.” As the state transitions from winter to spring, the jet stream becomes especially active and develops a lot of large low pressure systems that result in strong winds. April and May are months of the year when winds are usually strongest throughout the state.
As to the question of whether or not wind is getting worse, however, it’s hard to say. Wind in Colorado wasn’t measured comprehensively until the past three decades. Scientists today don’t know exactly the wind patterns and expected highs and lows of winds in the state. With Colorado’s near unceasing winds, data collection needs to happen around the clock, which, without the assistance of technology, didn’t start happening recently enough for scientists to concretely say that winds in the state are getting worse.
“It’s sort of a running joke in the weather and climate field is that everywhere you go, people think that it’s getting windier over time,” said Dr. Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and associate professor of atmospheric science at CSU in an interview with CBS 4, Denver’s local CBS station. Regardless, it is true that Colorado has been getting more wind this year than any time since 1992, when the state first started collecting data on wind.
The wind in Colorado might matter more now than it used to as a result of climate change, though. Because Colorado is seeing hotter temperatures and more prolonged droughts, the high winds in the state makes wildfires harder to fight, and thus more devastating. Wind contributed to the devastation of the Marshall Fire in Boulder County in December of last year. An otherwise manageable brush fire became a conflagration that consumed 1,084 homes as a result of extreme winds that firefighters couldn’t safely combat.
For Koray Gates ’25, this matter feels personal. A New Mexico native, his family lives close to where the Calf Canyon fire is currently burning, and they too have experienced extreme winds this spring. Gates said, “The wind has had a large and negative impact in my home state of New Mexico recently because it has made it harder to fight the raging wildfires that have grown far out of control.”
Though winds in Colorado are not directly tied to climate change yet, they contribute to some of the largest climate disasters that Colorado faces annually. When it’s this dry and windy, fire spreads fast.