Funnel cloud spotted near Steamboat Springs | VailDaily.com

Funnel cloud spotted near Steamboat Springs

Eleanor C. Hasenbeck
Steamboat Pilot & Today
photo - Steamboat Springs funnel cloud

Reader Kim Horn took this photo of a funnel cloud over Steamboat Springs from Mount Werner at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Brittany Dick was getting into her car to go for a run outside her home in Elk River Estates when she saw an uncommon site in Routt County — a funnel cloud.

The funnel cloud was just forming above North Routt County.

"I had never seen a funnel cloud before, honestly, even growing up in the Midwest. So, I actually got my roommate outside and asked him 'Is that a funnel cloud?’" she said.

She and her roommate watched the cloud grow and move southeast before it dissipated. Dick believed it might have briefly touched the ground on the horizon, though a National Weather Service meteorologist said the agency was unable to verify that the funnel touched down.

The National Weather Service would need a photo or video of the funnel on the ground, carrying debris or other indications of it reaching the ground to determine if it touched down. In an email, the agency said it was hard to determine if the funnel cloud touched the ground due to hills in the foreground of submitted videos. If it did touch the earth, it is considered a tornado.

"I know that tornadoes and funnel clouds aren't very common around here, so I guess I wasn't too concerned it was going to grow and come that far," Dick said. "It was more exciting to see than scary."

The funnel was the result of a downdraft in a moderate thunderstorm, said National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Cuoco. This means the funnel probably did not form from a rotating vortex, called a mesocyclone, which is how funnel clouds and tornadoes in the Midwest and eastern plains are commonly formed.

Funnel clouds and tornadoes are uncommon on Colorado's Western Slope. Cuoco said the National Weather Service will receive a handful of reports of similar funnels in Western Colorado over the course of the summer.

"I never thought the first funnel cloud I'd see would be in Steamboat, Colorado," Dick said.

Cuoco said there were a few storm systems in the Routt County area that were capable of producing the phenomena. Their strength was brief, he said. They would only have been able to create that amount of wind for about 20 minutes at the most.

He said the shape of the funnel cloud, which appeared to bend in a wide J shape, is usually associated with a gust front. A gust front occurs when cool winds in a storm rush down toward the earth, then blow out in all directions, much like an upside down mushroom cloud coming from the base of a thundercloud. He said these gusts are usually brief, only lasting 10 to 15 minutes, and they "usually don't cause much damage if they were to touch down."

"We call those landspouts," Cuoco said. "They're small funnels, and when they touch the ground, small tornadoes, that develop associated mainly with all the spin and other things happening around gust fronts coming out of thunderstorms.

"They're not really that common, but they do happen, and they happen in higher elevations," Cuoco said. "People sometimes think that you can't get funnel clouds or tornadoes over mountains, but certainly you can with the right storm."

Hail on the ground in the Steamboat II neighborhood. Courtesy/Rebekah Tiner Pierce
The storm also brought hail to the Steamboat area. Reader-submitted photos show that hail between the size of a nickel and a quarter fell near Steamboat II, and cars traveling over Rabbit Ears pass pulled over to allow heavy hail to subside according to scanner traffic at the time of the storm.

Though it was certainly windy, it wasn't a very strong storm, according to the National Weather Service.

"It's not what we would call a noticeably severe thunderstorm, as it looked on radar," Cuoco said.

The storm moved east into Grand County.

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Cuoco said it is unlikely Routt County will see any more hail, as the cold front carrying the storms has moved south. There are some weaker thunderstorms following the front, he said, which could bring rain, lightning and thunder to the area.

Cuoco said storms like these typically bring about a tenth to a quarter inch of precipitation.