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How Pikes Peak's unique topography produces thunderstorm in Colorado Springs

Posted at 7:13 PM, May 21, 2024

It's a common set up. You're in the middle of a thunderstorm in Colorado Springs, but see clear skies to the north and south. In most of the country, weather patterns are controlled by large weather systems that span hundreds to thousands of miles. In Colorado Springs - we often get very localized weather systems. As you may suspect - it's because of the giant mountain towering 8,000 feet above town....Pikes Peak.

But before we talk about how Pikes Peak itself produces its own thunderstorms, first - it helps to know how thunderstorms form.

All thunderstorms require three ingredients: heat, moisture, and cold air in the upper atmosphere

Like a pot of water on a stove, when the sun heats the ground, the ground heats the air, and if that air is wet, it rises and produces clouds and storms. But, Pikes Peak itself produces storms much more often then other parts of the state and country. That's due to upslope flow.

In Colorado Springs, winds in summer are often upslope into the mountain due to heating of the mountain itself versus the adjacent plains

When the sun is up, the slopes of Pikes Peak heat up, causing air to rise. Air from the east rushes in to replace this rising air from the plains, leading to upslope flow.

When moisture is present on the plains - due to a low, high, or front circulating in wet air, Pikes Peak generates thunderstorms

On some days, the air is dry - and this rising air produces clouds, but not much else. When additional weather systems are nearby - a low, or a front, moisture from those systems gets pulled into this flow and forced upward. This creates storms. Typically this is from the east - the Gulf of Mexico, outside of monsoon season.

Pikes Peak's various giant valleys, gullies, and sub-peaks dramatically affect local wind direction and speed around the mountain

Here's where Pikes Peak's unique shape comes into play. The unusually high distance above the adjacent plains, and the size of the valleys and gullies on the peak, strongly enhance and change local wind patterns on the mountain. Even compared to other Colorado 14ers, the 8,000 foot elevation change is dramatic - and on par with volcanoes in the Cascade range of the northwestern U.S. Many Colorado 14ers and 13ers rise 3,000 to 6,000 feet above their surrounding high mountain valleys.

Air often gets funneled into the U.S. 24 corridor, both up Pikes Peak, and around it into Teller County

On the U.S. 24 corridor, the valley between the northern Rampart Range and Pikes Peak itself, often gets stronger upslope flow. It also can get stronger downslope flow in those setups. In general - it's a windy place. Airflow here can either go through the valley into Teller County, or up the slopes of Pikes itself. Colorado Springs often gets its strongest storms when airflow is forced up through this region. As storms move down from the mountain, they flow to the east and northeast.

Precipitation is highest over the mountain itself, with the northern and eastern parts of Colorado springs and surrounding the U.S. 24 east corridor seeing extra rainfall, with southeastern parts of town in a rain shadow

This produces enhanced rainfall over northern Colorado Springs, into the Palmer Divide - Black Forest, Calhan, and Monument. Meanwhile, southeastern Colorado Springs is in a rain shadow. Of course - there are days when airflow produces the opposite: storms in the south and clear skies north...but this is the average picture.

The daily cycle of air motion around Pikes Peak sends it into the mountain during the day, with storms firing and moving back east. Whether they persist depends on how wet the air is on the plains

In general, storms form on the part of Pikes Peak where rising air combines with the best moisture. From there, storms track back over El Paso county and Colorado Springs. The air over Colorado Springs and the plains then determines how long these storms last. If it's wet, they'll often persist as they move through the plains. If it's dry, they fizzle out.

As we continue through thunderstorm season, check out the wind direction at your home next time thunderstorms are in the forecast. If the wind is out of the south or east, you should pack the umbrella.
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