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Meteo-nerding: Why Denver’s airport gets hit more than downtown

You may have seen yesterday’s tornado that touched down right near Denver, a few miles away from Denver’s international airport on the east side of the city. For the third time this year, passengers at the Denver International Airport (DIA) were forced to seek shelter underground due to a possible tornado in close proximity.

This also marks the third year in a row that a tornado has hit right or just near the airport (a tornado in May touched down about a mile south of DIA). In both June of 2012 and June of 2013, a tornado hit the airport, in both cases appearing to miss primary facilities and cause minimal damage, but in both cases also causing quite a scare for passengers and airlines. Meanwhile, downtown Denver, a mere 25 or so miles away from the airport, has mostly watched as tornadoes appear to swirl mostly to the east of the city’s center.

So why has downtown Denver seemingly dodged the bullet with tornadoes the last few years? In short, there are three primary reasons: 1) geography 2) chance, 3) elevation and 4) attention. Let me explain.

Denver, as many of you will already know, is known as the “Mile High City”, aptly named in reference to its elevation of 5,280 feet above sea level in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains. The mountains’ foothills begin mere miles west of Denver (nearby suburbs such as Golden and Evergreen are 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the city), and it’s from here where many storms “roll off”, forming at the base of the mountains. Once storms have a chance to mature and develop, they can tornado, but they often need flat space to travel and develop in order to do so. The airport is 25 miles east of the city’s center, giving storms a better chance to develop as they traverse the plains adjacent to Denver.

Here’s a look, courtesy of the Tornado History Project, at tornadoes in and around Denver over the years. Notice the increased concentration of strikes along the east side of the city:


Here’s also a look at Colorado tornado strikes, with almost all of them east of the mountains, for the same reasons listed above:


Then, there’s simply chance – a huge component in this. Tornadoes to strike at or near the airport – and for that matter, any airport – is a rarity. To get a tornado to hit at or near a specific spot three years in a row is a real roll of the dice, no matter how favorable the conditions in a certain geographical location might be.

Also, the airport is slightly higher than the city itself. DIA is at 5,430 feet officially, placing it 150 feet or so above downtown. That slight lift in elevation can help create a slight extra nudge to thunderstorms’ lift, allowing them to develop and mature faster and perhaps tornado in and around DIA.

Finally, there’s attention paid – little EF-0 tornadoes strike all the time, but often they’ll harmlessly hit a field and go back into the sky without perhaps anyone having known about it. But at a major international airport such as DIA, thousands of eyeballs are glued to the weather, impacting operations for flights all over the country and even the world. So a tornado striking a major airport such as Denver’s, for example, is going to draw way more attention (and create much more of a media buzz from weather nerds such as myself) than one that would hit a field 20 miles east of DIA.

This is also not to say tornadoes can’t strike central Denver – in June of 1988, an EF-3 tornado caused millions of dollars in damage as it tore through the Park Hill neighborhood along the east side of the city, injuring seven people. Additionally, several small tornadoes have struck the city in recent years, and more will likely move through, primarily in May and June, typically the peak of Denver’s severe weather season. But they simply have a slightly better chance of doing so at the airport rather than downtown.

Yesterday’s weak tornado, though, can be attributed to little else other than chance. There was virtually no forecast for really any severe weather, let alone a tornadic storm. But spin-ups can be harder to predict in Colorado due to its elevation as well as quick-developing thunderstorms. Keep in mind many low pressure centers, including so-called “Colorado lows”, form in the lee of the Rocky Mountains, adding perhaps an extra degree of difficulty in pinpointing the development of severe storms in Colorado. But fortunately, you have us ‘experts’ at WeatherNation to do our best to get you a precise forecast.

Meteorologist and nerd Chris Bianchi

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