How to stay safe from lightning while recreating in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains | SteamboatToday.com
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How to stay safe from lightning while recreating in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains

Lightning dances across the night sky northwest of Steamboat Springs in July.
John F. Russell/Pilot & Today.

As thunderstorms continue for much of the state, weather experts are warning outdoor enthusiasts to remain aware of strategies to avoid lightning hazards. 

According to the National Weather Service’s storm data, between 1989 and 2018, the U.S. has averaged 43 reported lightning fatalities per year. Only about 10% of people who are struck by lightning are killed, leaving 90% with various degrees of disability. More recently, the U.S. has averaged about 27 lightning fatalities per year.

In 2022 so far, there have been 13 deaths that were directly related to lightning in the U.S., and all have happened since June 22. Though none have happened in Colorado this summer, six of them were tourism or recreation related, including one in Wyoming when a 22-year-old man was camping.



Alan Smith, a meteorologist who writes the “U.S. Daily Summit” for OpenSnow, said that hikers need to be aware of not only weather happening in the moment but weather that could potentially move into the area. 

“Once you’re out on an adventure in the mountains, you’re basically on your own as far as watching the weather goes since consistent cell service can’t be counted in most mountain environments,” he said. “Fortunately, the atmosphere usually offers clues that can warn you of approaching or developing thunderstorms ahead of time.”



How does lightning form?

Lightning occurs when air acts as an insulator between the positive and negative charges in a cloud and between the cloud and the ground. When the opposite charges build up enough, this insulating capacity of the air breaks down and there is a rapid discharge of electricity.

According to the Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, the highest chances for lightning density now through Tuesday evening are in the southwestern portions of the state and small parts of the Front Range. In Summit County, the eastern border is expected to have between 0.05 and 0.5 flashes of lightning per square kilometer per day. 

This graph from the National Weather Service shows what outdoor activities have the greatest risk of lightning strikes.
National Weather Service

Tips to be weather aware when going outdoors

While light travels faster than sound, a quick burst of lightning is often missed by the eye. Some lightning may be obstructed by mountains and other features of the landscape, so officials say if you can hear thunder, a lightning-producing storm is close enough to hit you.

“Once you hear thunder, then that means a thunderstorm is close enough so that you are in danger of lightning, and that means it’s time to start heading down toward safer terrain,” Smith advised. “This is true in the case of both developing thunderstorms and approaching thunderstorms. If you can hear thunder and see lightning, then you can count between the lightning flash and the resulting thunderclap to estimate how far away the lightning strike occurred. Every five seconds in between lightning and thunder is approximately one mile.”

The National Park Service recommends that sheltering inside a vehicle with a metal top and tires is the safest option. On a scale of one to 10, this option is rated as a 10 ,while other options — like being in a cave or on an open slope of a mountain — are classified as a one, or “extremely dangerous.” If a hiker feels “tingly” or if their hair is standing on end, a last-resort position would be to crouch and cover their head. 

In Summit County, recent forecasts from the National Weather Service in Boulder show that the highest chance for thunderstorms will be this weekend. By Thursday, chances jump from 20-30% up to 60%. By Friday into the weekend, a limited threat for flash floods may develop for the East Troublesome, Williams Fork and Cameron Peak burn areas.

“While it’s unlikely any shower or storm develops, if one does, it will not be heavy enough to produce flash flooding, so there is no threat of flooding,” Russell Danielson, a meteorologist, said Monday. “An upper level high over the Central Rockies is expected to keep the area dry on Wednesday. Moisture begins to increase late Thursday or Friday with the chance for thunderstorms returning, mainly over the mountains.”


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