Whether you’re on a hike or overnight camping trip, awareness of possible weather threats can be the difference between life and death. Conditions can change abruptly and catch you off-guard if not readily prepared to take action.
Let’s look back at four situations from the summer and current fall and see what we can learn from them.
Sudden thunderstorms and lightning
This past July a group of three hikers was struck by lightning on a hiking trail in Glacier National Park while running to their vehicles according to the Missoulian. Another group of nearby hikers found them unconscious and immediately performed CPR to save their lives while a last hiker went to notify park rangers.
Thunderstorms can develop with little notice, especially near mountainous terrain. Tall steep slopes force air currents upward at high vertical velocities in a process of orographic lifting. Strong updrafts can develop into storm clouds that produce frequent lightning. Actions should be taken as soon as any lightning is seen or thunder is heard.
Seek shelter immediately. This doesn’t mean running under a park pavilion, but instead find a fully enclosed building.
If no shelter is available, avoid high peaks, waterways, open fields, and large trees
In a wooded forest, NOAA advises to move near low standing trees if no alternative options are available, but also cautions that no outdoor location is ever safe from lightning. Your vehicle is the next best option if no buildings are nearby.
Flash flooding, rock slides and mudslides
Recent record flooding in Colorado offers a prime example of the threat of heavy rain near mountain slopes. Moist terrain that easily flows downhill threatens low-lying areas with an increased risk of rock slides after flooding events.
A tragic event unfolded two weeks ago when a rock slide in Colorado killed five hikers and injured a 13-year old girl, as reported by the Denver Post. Flooding in preceding weeks may have played a role.
The Colorado Office of Emergency Management has an excellent Web site which lists the warning signs of rock slides, areas to avoid, and what to do during and after.
Snowstorms and bitter cold
Two hikers in Washington State went missing in Washington State from an early season snowstorm two weeks ago, one was found.
Hiking in snow can be dangerous. Heavy snow and low visibilities can strand hikers and/or cause them to lose track of the trail. In addition, hikers may not realize what lies beneath snow. For example, snow could cover weak ice laying atop water. It’s best, if possible, to familiarize yourself with a trail before the snow season and/or avoid hiking during major storms.
Also, dressing appropriately for cold weather is essential by wearing multiple layers and any additional necessary accessories to keep your body warm. Fresh snow cover reduces day time temperatures as a large portion of solar radiation is reflected by the snow back to space. This high albedo effect lowers heating of local terrestrial lands and reduces air temperatures near the surface.
Extreme heat, drought, and wildfires
During warm weather months, excessive heat can cause regional drought, increasing the risk of large wildfires. Large parts of the West experienced dangerous fire weather conditions last summer.
In late August, a hiker went missing after a pair of wildfires erupted in Montana. He got separated from his friend and became “disoriented” reported the Missoulian. He later made it back to a highway where he was picked up by law enforcement.
Although many of the largest wildfires in the West during the summer were not from natural causes, the meteorological conditions were ripe for the devastating effects.
Dr. Jeff Masters of Weather Underground described how the vulnerable summer conditions helped to fuel some of the regional wildfires in a June blog post.
Lightning is often a trigger for wildfires, so be aware that the risk is elevated when there are nearby thunderstorms especially where it is hot and the ground is dry.
Active.com has hiker tips for avoiding wildfires and advice about what to do if one is set off.
Recommended items for weather wilderness safety
- Have at least one water bottle available and consider the locations of nearby fountains or waterways to refill them when necessary. Keep in mind that streams, lakes, or rivers can be unsanitary without proper procedures to purify the water quality. Consider options provided by Active.com for purifying water in the outdoors.
- Sunscreen should be used when participating in outdoor activities during every season. There may be a lower chance of getting sunburns in heavy dense cloud cover, but they can still occur. The sun’s UV rays don’t have as strong an effect during the fall and winter seasons as when directly overhead during the summer.
- A NOAA weather radio will alert you of severe weather warnings in your area. Some mobile phone apps also have the capability of warning users of significant weather alerts, but they should never replace the efficiency of a NOAA weather radio since they may not provide service in the wilderness.
Weather safety awareness has particularly high importance in the wilderness. Check weather forecasts for known locations you may be trekking through prior to any adventures and monitor sky conditions for changes, adjusting your plans as necessary.
The author, Brendan Richardson, is a Capital Weather Gang fall intern. Brendan recently earned his Bachelor of Science double major degree in Earth Science with a Concentration in Atmospheric Science; and Global and Environmental Change from George Mason University.