Is it getting windier in Colorado? It’s hard to say
Last month marked the second windiest March on record in the San Luis Valley’s San Acacio
Michael Hirakata remembers monitoring the wind as a boy while he helped his father plant melons on their family farm in Rocky Ford. In the 35 years since he started farming in eastern Colorado, Hirakata can’t remember a season where wind hasn’t been a nuisance.
“Some years the winds are worse than others, it’s hard to predict. But I don’t remember a season without wind,” Hirakata, president of the Rocky Ford Growers Association said.
It’s a force of nature Hirakata can’t ignore when prepping his fields. He will plant seedlings for Colorado-famous cantaloupes this week — if the winds let him. Last week, forecasters warned of wind about 25 mph with gusts up to 40 mph in the area. If winds exceed 15 mph this week, Hirakata will wait.
“We’ll look at the weather and we’ll either beat the wind or we’ll wait ’til it’s finished,” Hirakata said.
Halfway through Colorado’s windiest month, Hirakata is not alone hoping for a lull in the wind.
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning Tuesday ahead of 15 to 25 mph winds with gusts up to 40 mph expected to plague the eastern half of the state with high fire danger. In parts of northwestern and western Colorado, forecasters cautioned 55 mph gusts could blow around unsecured objects and bring down tree limbs. Wind-blown dust could make it hard to exercise outside for people with respiratory illnesses, older adults and kids, the office added.
Wind gusts topping 80 mph in late March along the Front Range also had many wondering if the dust in their eyes and wind-chapped cheeks were the products of a windier year than most … or does it just feel that way?
It’s a question Colorado state climatologist Russ Schumacher gets every year.
“It’s kind of a running joke in our field that every year people say — no matter where they live — that they think it’s getting windier,” Schumacher said.
As windy as it felt, last month’s winds were about average along the Front Range, he said. Still, the howling winds continue to dry suburban fields and raise alarm for wildfires across the state.
The three National Weather Service offices in Colorado have issued more red flag warnings so far this year compared to most, warning the public of warm temperatures, very low humidity levels and strong winds that are expected to increase wildfire risk.
As of Tuesday, the weather service issued 53 red flag warnings so far this year, according to NWS data.
In the San Luis Valley, March was the second windiest on record in San Acacio, data show. Rocky Ford saw its fourth windiest March.
At Hirakata’s family farm, soil is fine from cold temperatures and little precipitation through the winter and when the wind blows, his fields erode, he said.
“We don’t have anything planted right now, so we’re lucky there,” Hirakata said last week. “But it has taken away a lot of moisture that we built up in the ground during the wintertime, so when we do start irrigating, we’ll have to irrigate more than we should.”
“It’s a domino effect and then the whole field starts blowing.”
The tireless wind last year was a major blow to crop yields, he said. The wind was so strong, bees struggled to pollinate flowers and blooms flew off the vine again and again.
“We figure our yields were down 30 to 40% last year, if not more,” Hirakata said.
Is this our new normal?
There isn’t consistent long-term data on wind like there is for precipitation and temperature, so analyzing wind trends is difficult. The climate center has 130 years of data on heat, cold and rain, but less than 30 years on wind.
But one way that it is possible is by using an “atmospheric reanalysis,” which combines observations to estimate conditions around the world, climatologist Schumacher said.
According to an analysis from a climate scientist Brian Brettschneider, parts of Colorado saw wind speeds increasing at a “significant rate” in April. Most other months showed little to no trend, he cautioned.
April is typically the windiest month in Colorado as nearby rain and snow storms move through the area, Schumacher said. Storms moving north of Colorado last year brought strong winds across the state, especially in northeastern Colorado and down the Front Range where the wind was relentless for most of April.
“When the storm systems come through off the mountains and out into the Plains — if they’re just north of us, then all the precipitation goes north and then we get the winds,” Schumacher said.
Plumes of dust traveling across parts of southwest Colorado, including Cortez and Durango, were expected to grow through Tuesday evening as gusts continued, the weather service said.
More strong wind is likely later this week as storms from the Pacific Northwest move across Colorado, said David Byers, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office.
April’s winds are shaping up to be about average, Byers said, but his office is watching fire conditions as precipitation tends to drop off in May and warmer temperatures in the coming weeks dry out grasses and other vegetation.
“We could have a very active fire season in June, so that’s something we’re watching,” Byers said.