The winter storm that moved through Wyoming last weekend only brought a few inches of snow. But, as usual, there was plenty of wind.
The National Weather Service recorded wind gusts of more than 50 mph throughout the Cowboy State, while one gust recorded on Interstate 25 near Cheyenne reached 76 mph. Pretty stiff, for sure, but by Wyoming standards those were barely breezy.
Maybe it’s because of the cold and windchill, but many this time of year start lamenting how our famous winds are worse in winter — and they’d be right. The Cowboy State is primed for a four-month stretch of gusts and gales.
Geologically speaking, it’s a giant winter wind tunnel.
Wyoming Highway Patrol Officer Arron Healy said he notices it, as do many drivers traveling across the state’s often empty landscapes.
“I get quite a few calls from commercial truck drivers asking, ‘Hey, what're the wind conditions? Are there closures? Are there warnings?” Those types of inquiries can happen frequently,” Healy said.
Anyone who drives on a Wyoming highway in winter must brace themselves for the buffeting they’ll get. No truck driver wants to be the next one to blow over on Interstate 80, but the risk is always there.
It’s about this time of year when those with short memories start lamenting how they’ve never seen it this windy. Something must be different.
Cowboy State Daily meteorologist Don Day fields questions and comments like this occasionally, and his answer makes some people think he’s full of hot air.
“It happens every year,” he said. “I got an email over the weekend from somebody really upset about the wind and saying, ‘Is this going to be like this all year?’ And (that) they've never seen it this windy before. Yeah, you have.”
However, Day said people aren’t imagining things when it comes to worse wind in winter.
It doesn’t just feel that way. It is that way.
“The windiest months in Wyoming are, without a doubt, December through March,” he said. “It doesn't necessarily mean that February can't be windier than December, but that’s when you see the highest winds.”
Too Tall, No Wall And Perfectly Mid
The world brings its wind here, and Wyoming makes the most of it because of three geographic factors.
First, there’s the mountainous terrain. Day said Wyoming is uniquely situated compared to other Western states since it’s mountainous but not continuously mountainous.
“The biggest gaps between the major mountain ranges is Wyoming,” he said. “You don't have continuous mountains. You have a mountain range, a gap, another mountain range, and another gap. Those gaps really funnel the wind.”
Then there’s latitude. Wyoming sits in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, where weather patterns are constantly moving past and interacting with each other. Any region in the mid-latitudes will experience strong prevailing winds.
If that wasn’t enough, Wyoming is a high point sitting on a mid-latitude. Day said that position makes wind blow that much harder.
“Since Wyoming's elevation is so high, we're closer to the wind,” he said. “We're closer to those winds aloft.”
Wyoming isn’t just windy. It’s a perfect windstorm.
Drivers sometimes learn this the hard way. There are dozens of semitruck blowovers each season, and other wind-related events.
Like last year when wind gusts registering more than 110 mph hit a pickup towing a 4,000-pound trailer loaded with supplies, ripped its bumper off and tossed the heavy trailer around like a balloon in a breeze.
In that case, it didn’t help that warning signs along the highway advised winds were gusting about 60 mph, nearly half of what they were.
The driver of the pickup, Bill Dike, told Cowboy State Daily at the time he made the decision to drive over South Pass coming from Salt Lake City based on dynamic message signs (DMS) erected by the Wyoming Department of Transportation, which warned of high winds – but nothing he hadn’t navigated in the past.
“The road sign said 60 mph gusts, which anybody in Wyoming has driven a trailer with 60 mph gusts. We got to Red Canyon, it was 110 and it flipped my trailer,” he said. “I’ve driven almost 1.5 million miles without any accidents whatsoever. There’s a big difference between 60 mph gusts and 111 mph gusts.”
What Worse About Winter?
Weathering the wind is one thing. Weathering the wind in subzero temperatures and blinding clouds of ice and snow is another.
Remember Wyoming’s mid-latitude position? Day said mid-latitude winter winds tend to build overhead and get much stronger during their stay.
“That is the time of year where the jet stream is the strongest and spends most of its time in our latitudes,” he said. “And that drives a lot of our high-wind events. When the strong winds aloft are right on top of us.”
Putting it all together, it explains the increased intensity of Wyoming’s winter winds. An elevated position in an atmospherically blustery latitude during the strongest season without a wall of mountains as a wind break.
Day added that Wyoming’s windiest season lasts longer, often extending into early spring. There’s no getting away from it.
Wyoming’s wind can be infuriating, but it isn’t surprising. Healy hopes people don’t let hubris guide whether they should be testing those winds out on the road.
“People have in their sense of driving, especially the folks who’ve been here for a while,” he said. “They can ask themselves, ‘Are these conditions that I could drive safely?’ And justify it?”
During an especially windy day, it’s easy to take chances and get overconfident. Healy said Wyomingites' best allies are the state’s ports of entry, which can answer questions about road conditions.
“Especially for commercial motor vehicles,” he said. “Call the ports of entry and we'll be able to help you if you have a question, especially for coming from out of state. Ask us what’s out there, and we'll be able to look it up and take a look for it and hopefully get you the answers or direct you to a place that has all the answers.”
Andrew Rossi writes about astronomy, dinosaurs, horrible weather, stuff that blows up, and weird things.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.