If you are planning on spending any time in the mountains, it is a good idea to understand what you are getting yourself into. While the temperature on the ground may be a balmy 70 degrees, at high altitudes that temperature can rapidly drop! One second it may be sunny, and five minutes later it could be hailing. Why is the mountain climate so unpredictable?
The base of a mountain is often filled with a variety of flora and fauna. The climate is often mild and suitable for many different plants to grow, providing food and habitat for a range of different wildlife. As the altitude increases, the temperature begins to drop. Trees will be less common, and the number of animals will begin to decrease. The mountain climate becomes harsher, leaving only the wildlife that has adapted to survive in these conditions. At even higher altitudes, it may be difficult to even find a trace of plants or animals. When the ground freezes, sources of water and food are extremely hard to find. High wind and extreme temperatures make it difficult for survival.
Why do higher altitudes get more rainfall? Air traveling over land doesn’t “split” when it hits a mountain; instead, it is forced upward and over. As the air rises, it begins to cool. When it cools to “dew point temperature,” water droplets begin to form and a large cloud appears. Warm air can carry more moisture than cool air – when the temperature drops, the extra moisture is released in the form of rain. Precipitation is known to be heavier on the “windward” side of a mountain, rather than the “leeward” side.
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As the air continues to rise to even higher altitudes, more condensation occurs and the clouds become thicker and increase in number. As the temperature drops, some of these droplets begin to freeze. These growing ice particles begin to fall, colliding with other ice crystals, which cause electrical charges to separate within the cloud. At any point, lightning may strike.1
Drastic Changes in Weather
Apart from rainfall, storms and other drastic weather changes can happen at any moment. Latitude, elevation, and sun exposure all affect the mountain climate, so no two climates are the same. You may start off on a beautiful bluebird day without a cloud in the sky. As you gain altitude, you may find that a couple of clouds have appeared here and there. Another half an hour goes by, and those clouds start looking a bit ominous. Before you know it, it’s a torrential downpour! Luckily, many mountain storms pass by quickly – although it can be very dangerous to be caught in cooler temperatures with soaking wet clothes. Sudden rainfall can instantly make a seemingly easy track slippery and treacherous.
How Thunderstorms Form
There are three types of thunderstorms: orographic, air mass, and frontal. Orographic thunderstorms are caused by air that is forced up the side of a mountain. There is a lot of complicated meteorology behind the formation of thunderstorms, but it essentially boils down to this. The two most important factors in thunderstorm development are instability and moisture. Instability refers to unstable air, meaning air that is forced to rise. First, the surface of the earth (the base of a mountain) is heated by the sun on a daily basis. The air is then forced upward, which transfers heat from lower altitudes to higher altitudes through the process of convection.2
Cumulus clouds begin to form, followed by cumulonimbus. As the clouds continue to grow, the tiny water droplets within it also grow. As more and more water is added, the cloud begins to look dark and grey. The droplets become heavy, and eventually, the rising air is no longer able to hold them up. Raindrops begin to fall through the cloud. Meanwhile, cool air is flowing downward through the cloud, while the warmer air is continuing to rise. This moving air builds up electric charges and allows lightning to form.3
Knowing the Signs
Knowing the beginning signs of a mountain storm can help you know when you should turn back or look for shelter. On a bright, clear day, small cloud formations should not be ignored. Over the course of the day, these clouds may multiply and become larger. Thin, flat clouds are often not a cause for alarm. However, you should be wary of clouds that seem to get “taller,” as this could mean a storm is on the way. As the small cumulus clouds become even larger, they turn into cumulonimbus clouds. These clouds start to greatly increase in height, and the sky may start to become grey.
If this happens, a heavy rainstorm or thunderstorm is imminent. At higher elevations, it may turn into a snowstorm. It is important to assess the situation and determine whether or not to press forward. If you still have a long way to go or the trail seems as though it may get treacherous in rainy or snowy weather, it is a wise idea to turn around. Before you decide to press on, determine whether or not you will be able to safely shelter yourself from lightning.
How To Prepare
If you are planning on heading out to the mountains, whether for a day trip or otherwise, it is important to come prepared. First things first: ditch the cotton. Cotton retains water, especially from sweat. This means it keeps you feeling sweaty in hot temperatures, and wet and cold in cooler temperatures. Polyester, nylon, and merino wool are all recommended instead. These materials are made to “wick” sweat, meaning they move sweat away from the skin and are fast-drying. These materials are especially important for the clothes you will be wearing directly on the skin, such as t-shirts, underwear, sports bras, long underwear, and socks.
Even if the base of the mountain is hot and sunny, you should always wear long pants and shirts. Not only do they protect your skin from the sun, but they can act as an extra barrier against any inclement weather you may experience. Be sure that your clothing is comfortable to move around in, but not so thin and loose that it can easily be snagged and ripped. If you’re a die-hard shorts fan, try to find a pair of zip-off pants that can easily be converted.
To prepare for any weather, layering is key. If you prefer to wear a t-shirt for part of your hike, be sure to have a longer-sleeved shirt on top or readily available. A warm mid-layer (fleece or a light puff jacket) is also recommended since temperatures will continue to drop the higher you go. In order to be prepared for any situation, you should always pack a lightweight rain jacket. This can double as a windbreaker in high winds.
Wearing a hat can keep your skin protected from the sun, and can also add as an extra barrier against any rain. Sturdy, close-toed shoes are also important, and they should provide good traction and support. When shopping for good hiking clothes, look for these terms: wicking, insulating, waterproof, windproof and breathable.
Enjoy the Mountain Climate
Even if the forecast in the mountains can often be wrong, you don’t need to let a few small rainstorms ruin your adventure. By understanding the mountain climate and coming properly prepared, you can benefit from all of the therapeutic properties of the mountains. If the mountain climate isn’t for you, give our Mountain blend a try to feel the essence of nature through juniper leaf, peppermint, and scotch pine.
Photo credits: Stone36/shutterstock.com, HE68/shutterstock.com, Voyagerix/shutterstock.com