Snow-eaters melt the snow


Where did all the snow go? Last week at this time, the Front Range was entirely blanketed in several inches of the white stuff. Today, it’s almost gone. Where did it go?
The Answer: Chinooks.
Chinooks are warm dry winds. They get their name from a Pacific Northwest Indian word for “snow eater,” because when the chinook blows, the snow goes. With gusts that blast up to 120 miles per hour, pushing the temperature up 40 degrees F in minutes, chinooks along the eastern side of the Rockies are the most violent in the world. You always suspected that, didn’t you?
What causes a chinook? Chinooks are cool air pushed down by the weight of a high pressure front above them. Squeezing the cool air warms it up, to become warm dry, air. In winter and spring, chinook winds often buffet the areas just east of the mountains from Canada all the way to Mexico.14-Chinook
At ground level, the now-warm dry air is no longer under pressure. Like any compressed gas, it expands when released, and rips along the surface at 50 to 120 miles per hour as a chinook, melting and evaporating snow as it goes. By definition, chinook winds are warm and dry, and they suck the moisture out of plants, soils and people as they blow.

Foehn wall hanging above the Front Range (not visible in this photo).

Foehn wall hanging above the Front Range (not visible in this photo).

When a chinook blows, look toward the mountains. A bank of smooth clouds often hangs above the highest peaks. This is known as a foehn wall; it is created as the cool, wet, air crosses the mountains and is then forced down by high air pressure above that causes the chinook as well.
As the cool wet air containing the foehn wall is pushed down, it is compressed by the air above it; as it is compressed, it heats; as it heats, the amount of water it can hold increases (dew point rises) and the foehn wall cloud evaporates.
Chinooks also have the odd habit of “bouncing” over the land. They swoop down, blast some poor place with hurricane-force winds and then bounce back up, totally skipping over a locale just a few miles down the road.
In California chinooks are called Santa Aña winds, and in Europe, foehn (German for “warm”, pronounced “phone”. Actually, I heard a native German-speaker pronounce this word and it was closer to the way Peter Sellers and Steve Martin did it in the “Pink Panther” movies: “fun” as in “Your fun is ringing.”).

About coloradogeography

Amy Law is a second-generation Coloradoan with a passion for her native state. This translated into a Master’s degree in Natural Resources from Colorado State University, and continues as a lifelong fascination with how people and nature interact. From family vacations in the station wagon to travel for work, she's covered the state, and everywhere she goes, she finds new things to see and ideas to explore.
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4 Responses to Snow-eaters melt the snow

  1. Is this why the sunrise was so amazing this morning… I feel like your description describes the unbelievable color over RMNP? Great post I love the information!

    • I *think* that’s right. Great sunrises and sunsets are caused by dust in the air. It follows that chinooks kick up a lot of dust, and therefore create great sunrises.
      Glad you’re enjoying the info. I love rooting around and finding answers to questions like these.

  2. Great post, Amy. Indeed, the chinook “ate” all of the snow in the San Luis Valley this week, and I went out without Gore-Tex pants for the first time since, oh, before Thanksgiving! Did you draw that graphic? Love it.

    • Yes, I drew the graphic, based on others that I’ve collected through the years.
      I took a look at the animated wind graphic that I posted a couple of weeks ago, and our chinooks seem to be a response to the lows causing so much horrible weather in the northeast.
      You’re right, when the wind stops, the temperatures are wonderful. I hope the weather is as nice when I visit the Valley next month.

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