Mountain Microbursts

Updated: Dec 26, 2021

This summer, while camping with our teardrop camper near Monarch Pass in Colorado, we noticed extensive damage to the surrounding trees along the road to one of our favorite sites, with a short stretch of the road showing signs of cleanup. The number of trees blown over, with the root systems mostly intact but uprooted from the ground, as well as snapped and splintered trunks and branches led us to the conclusion that a small - possibly only a few hundred feet in extent - but pretty intense #microburst event had occurred.

Teardrop camper in aspen grove
Camping in an aspen grove

Microbursts are a #weather phenomenon characterized by a brief but powerful downdraft over a small area (defined as less than 2.5 miles), generally in conjunction with thunderstorms; there was plenty of evidence of flash flooding in the area too. Microbursts can break branches, blow trees over, snap tree trunks, damage and destroy utility poles, vehicles and buildings, and they have caused plane crashes. Unlike tornadoes with their rotational flow, even small microbursts will show evidence of straight-line winds. However, the downdraft winds of a microburst can exceed tornado windspeeds.

Aspen tree broken off and bent to the ground by a microburst
Aspen tree broken by a microburst

A number of aspens were broken off at various heights, like the one shown at right. And yet trees all around the broken few were mainly intact. I was fascinated by the stress cracks on one tree, well below where the top broke off, as seen in the group of three images below. The left image shows a stress crack on one side of the trunk just above my eye level. The middle image is of the same trunk from the other side of the tree.

Three views of same aspen trunk showing cracks and broken top
Three views of an aspen trunk showing stress cracks and broken-off top

The right image shows that the top of the tree broke off about 4 to 5 feet above the stress cracks (note that the crack can be seen in the trunk near the bottom of the image). I was amazed by the evidence of the forces involved and walked around the tree several times to view the damage from various angles.


The aspens had actually handled the damage better than nearby evergreens. Many of those were uprooted, and there was at least one good-sized evergreen with a trunk diameter of about 10 inches that had been broken off about 6 feet up its trunk (and no, I'm sorry to say I did not get a decent, sharable picture of that one). We saw where at least two of the nearby campsites were unusable due to the damage to the trees around them, with cleanup begun but not completed when we were there.


This is the second time we've observed evidence of probable microbursts in the area. Last year, we saw an aspen grove on nearby Marshall Pass Road where there is an extreme

Aspen grove with evidence of a past microburst event
Damaged aspen grove on Marshall Pass Road, Colorado

delineation between the surviving grove and the damaged portion. At this location, it almost looks as if a straight-edge was used to neatly separate the blown-down and splintered aspens and those minimally touched by the event. Interesting side note, this aspen grove also happens to be the thickest one I've seen so far.


Researching microbursts turned out to be immensely riveting (you don't want to know how long that 'bunny trail' lasted!) but these images are documentary only. Please check out my website, www.DeniseDethlefsen.com, for artistic photography of the natural and man-made world. #photography #NaturePhotography #TravelswithMinnie #teardropcamping


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