CHEYENNE – Cheyenne and the surrounding area saw some of the highest wind speeds in decades over the past week. And while weather experts were doubtful that winds would reach triple-digit speeds again anytime soon, local residents can expect dry conditions and fairly standard winter temperatures to persist in the coming months.
The extraordinarily windy weather persisted through much of the week, though the fastest gusts largely occurred Wednesday night. Wind speeds of 105 miles per hour were recorded at a Union Pacific Railroad sensor about 10 miles west of Cheyenne, according to the National Weather Service.
The wind speed was the fastest level recorded locally in winter months since at least 1997, according to National Weather Service Cheyenne meteorologist Matthew Brothers.
“Excluding summer thunderstorms, as far as the wintertime high winds, it’s definitely up there as one of the highest wind speeds recorded here in Cheyenne,” Brothers said.
Although Wyoming is no stranger to wind, the extraordinary conditions Wednesday and Thursday caused 18 blow-overs in southeast Wyoming, including seven in Laramie County, according to a Facebook post from the Wyoming Department of Transportation. Within Cheyenne, the fastest wind speed recorded was 89 mph.
The high-speed winds also wreaked havoc on some of the meteorological tools used by experts to gauge weather patterns, Wyoming State Climate Office acting director Tony Bergantino said.
“I had some of my observers contact me, saying that the winds had ripped their rain gauge out of the bracket, and we’re looking for a replacement for that,” Bergantino said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten calls like that before.”
The high winds were largely brought on by a high-pressure system in the Mountain West clashing with a high-pressure system to the east, Bergantino said.
“Winds will go from a high-pressure to a low-pressure system, and so that’s really what got them rolling here,” Bergantino said.
Through the rest of winter, the United States is expected to remain in a La Niña pattern, which Brothers said typically produces slightly more wind than in other years. However, he said residents don’t need to brace for many triple-digit wind speeds moving forward.
“We might have a few windy days coming up, but probably nothing as extreme as what we’ve had the past few days,” Brothers said.
Beyond that, it can be difficult to predict what a La Niña pattern means for southeast Wyoming, which straddles the line between wetter conditions to the north and drier conditions to the south in Colorado.
“As we get into the three-month period of January, February and March, we’re not getting as clear of a signal because of where we are latitudinally from the effect of La Niña,” Bergantino said. “For precipitation, at least, it’s kind of hard to call it, expect a little bit better chances for above-average precipitation in the northern part and … better chances for drier conditions in the southern portions of the state.”
Bergantino added the state should see colder temperatures for the next two weeks or so, while February, March and April could bring some above-average temperatures to the southern half of the state.
The potential for high temperatures this spring “is not going to bode well” for drought conditions in Wyoming, Bergantino said. Dating back to last spring, Wyoming has been dealing with considerably dry conditions. The United States Drought Monitor, based at the University of Nebraska, shows all of southeast Wyoming in a moderate-to-severe drought, with much of the central portion of the state in an extreme drought.
“Unless we get a couple good winter storms here in the next couple months, I would probably expect (the drought conditions) to remain around,” Brothers said. “Since we didn’t get too much rainfall this past summer, it’s kind of been building up the drought conditions in the area.”
Even when precipitation does arrive in southeast Wyoming, it hasn’t done much to dampen the drought conditions.
“With the ground being the temperature it is, and it’s so dry, we’re not seeing a whole lot of it going into the soil moisture column, so it’s kind of hard to tell what the benefit of some of the snow is going to be when it actually comes to melting,” Bergantino said. “A lot of it in the last week has probably blown over into Nebraska.”
The drought conditions have also made wildfires, which typically occur in warmer months, a more realistic possibility for the winter season. Brothers said the local National Weather Service station is keeping a close eye on the possibility for wildfires occurring earlier than usual this year.
“With how dry it was last year, and if we keep on with these dry conditions in the next few months and get a few windy days, warmer-than-average days, it’s definitely possible that we could have some fire weather conditions develop in the area,” Brothers said. “It’s definitely possible with how dry it is out there.”
Hovering over all of the West’s weather dynamics is climate change, which has contributed to a substantial increase in western wildfires in recent years. The combination of warming air temperatures and increasingly dry ground-level conditions has extended the western fire season by at least 84 days since the 1970s, according to a recent National Geographic report.
Asked about the conditions’ connection to climate change, Bergantino was reluctant to attribute the local drought conditions, which are expected to continue for at least the next month, to any one factor.
“It comes down to we’re seeing a lot of variability,” Bergantino said. “So I would be hesitant to really pin this on one particular thing or not, just for an isolated period, but it does make for some interesting times.”