Steamboat Springs The lightning storm that shocked Steamboat Springs at about 11 p.m. Tuesday night drenched Oak Creek and lit up the night sky from Glenwood Springs to Routt County.
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A weather observer taking part in the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network reported 0.94 inches of rain at a gauge 1.7 miles northwest of Oak Creek as of 6 a.m. Wednesday and another gauge about one-half mile northeast of the town recorded 0.4 inches.
Unofficial National Weather Service observer Art Judson said his rain gauge in Steamboat measured 0.26 inches that came from three distinct periods of showers in a 24-hour period. A rain gauge in The Sanctuary subdivision measured 0.21 inches, and just 0.09 inches fell above Strawberry Park at Dry Lake.
The National Weather Service in Grand Junction was calling for a 20 percent chance of heavy rain overnight Wednesday into Thursday. However, sunny skies and highs in the mid-80s were expected to prevail during the day Thursday.
But it was the multiple ropes of thick cloud-to-ground lightning that kept Steamboat residents up past their bedtimes Tuesday night.
Judson said he monitored the lightning storm on radar with National Weather Service night shift meteorologist Jeff Colton as it approached from beyond the Flat Tops in Garfield County. Judson and Colton, who have known each other for two decades, were sending emails and tweeting as the storm unfolded.
“That storm started south of Interstate 70 and made it all the way to Steamboat. It was visible on Grand Junction radar for its entirety," Judson said. It held together all the way to Yampa, which received 0.55 inches of rain, and Oak Creek where the 0.94 inches was the greatest amount of precipitation in the state, he added.
Colton told Judson that the storm approached Steamboat from Yampa at 15 mph. There were anecdotal reports Wednesday that the heavy rain held up as far north as Lake Catamount in the south valley, but Judson said by the time it arrived on Steamboat’s doorstep, its energy was waning.
“I was told the storm was ‘pulsing down’ just before it hit town, and that was accurate,” Judson said. “On arrival here, it literally fell apart, fragmented into short-lived showers and produced highly variable but mostly small amounts in Steamboat proper.”
So why did this particular storm produce so much lightning?
National Weather Service meteorologist Julie Malingowski said Wednesday afternoon that tropical moisture that had been lingering over Steamboat early Tuesday heated up throughout the sunny day, causing it to rise vigorously. That air was destined to bump into a drier layer of air aloft producing conditions that were conducive to lightning.
“We had a lot of energy in the atmosphere yesterday and more organized storms than we usually have on the Western Slope,” Malingowski said.
As the moist air heated, it created an unusual amount of lifting allowing it to penetrate the drier layer above 20,000 feet.
“The (cloud) tops were overshooting into drier air, and that’s typically when we’ll see a lot of lightning,” Malingowski said.
As the storm approached Steamboat, Judson concluded from watching the cloud-to-cloud lightning in the towering thunderheads from his deck — then turning to his computer and confirming the location of the storm at that moment on radar — that he was seeing activity taking place as far away as I-70.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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