Wind is a powerful force of nature and an almost constant companion in Rocky Mountain National Park in winter. The wind sculpts trees, rocks, ice, clouds, and patterns of vegetation. In the park, the work of the wind is most noticeable at treeline. There trees are struggling to survive. Branches grow predominantly on the side of the tree most sheltered from the wind by the tree's own trunk. Thus, it is easy to tell that the wind blows most often and most strongly from the direction directly opposite the branches.
In some locations, such as Antarctica, where there is less human activity to displace objects, it is possible to find ventifacts. Ventifacts are rocks that have remained in place for centuries and been sandblasted by the wind into flat surfaces with almost knife sharp edges separating them. These rocks are reliable indicators of wind direction. The flat sides of the rocks show the directions from which the wind most often blows. Ventifacts have not been found in the park, probably because human activity prevents their development, but wind-blown dust and sand can scar trees.
Wind studies in the park in the 1970s and 1980s recorded wind gusts in excess of 200 miles an hour (mph), and average daily wind speeds of 65 mph at Longs Peak in the winter. During the 74 days of study at Longs Peak, the average daily wind speed was over 100 mph for 13 days, or 18% of the days. So on about one out of every 5 days, winter visitors to Longs Peak would experience average winds of about 100 mph. Winter wind speeds at Alpine Visitor Center could not be recorded because of access problems, but average daily summer speeds were about 48 mph with gusts up to 79 mph. Summer wind speeds at Alpine Visitor Center were suspected to be much lower than winter wind speeds, because that is the pattern observed elsewhere in the park. These studies were initiated after hurricane force winds knocked down hundreds of trees in Hidden Valley. At that time there was a ski area in the valley, and park staff realized that if the blow-down had occurred during the day instead of at night, it could have threatened human health and safety. This work reinforces the understanding that wind is a powerful shaping force in the park's environment. It also suggests that humans should retain a healthy respect for this invisible but powerful force of nature.
Last updated: March 31, 2012