The Red Cone Pass Colorado Lightning Incident of 24 August 2003
This research is part of the Colorado Lightning Resource Page, NWS Pueblo, Colorado
"The primary reason for these lightning casualty case studies is to observe where victims were located relative to thunderstorm activity when they were struck".
Prior to 2130 UTC (330 MDT) on 24 August 2003, a young male was struck and injured by a lightning flash in the immediate vicinity of Red Cone Pass, located southeast of small town of Montezuma, Colorado (Fig. 1)
Figure 1. Topographic map of the Red Cone Pass area in central Colorado. Click on map for a larger view. Map from Delorme.com. Used with permission.
Flash data acquired from the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) indicated 3 flashes occurred within 6 miles of Red Cone pass between 2115 and 2130 UTC. The first flash occurred at 2116:08 UTC about 0.5 miles south-southeast of Red Cone pass, the second occurred at 2121:22 UTC 6 miles northwest of Red Cone pass, while the third flash occurred at 2126:20 UTC 2 miles east of Red Cone pass (fig 2). Flash maps 30 minutes prior to 2115 UTC showed no lightning within 6 miles of the Red Cone Pass area (the nearest flash was over ~15 miles southwest of Red Cone pass, figures 3 and 4).
Information from medical authorities indicated the first report of a lightning flash victim on top of Red Cone pass arrived at 2130 UTC. Based on this information and the map shown shown in Figure 1, either the flash that occurred at 2116:08 UTC or 2126:22 UTC could have caused the casualty.
Fig. 2. 15 minute lightning plot ending at 2130 UTC 24 August 2003. Flash locations are indicated by small white dashes ("-"). Red Cone Pass is located southeast of the town of Montezuma (center of image). One of the two flashes below the the letters "Montezuma" is believed to have caused the casualty
Fig. 3. Lightning data between 2100 UTC and 2115 UTC. No flashes occurred in the Red Cone pass area, the nearest flashes were over 15 miles away to the southwest.
Fig. 4. Lightning data between 2045 UTC and 2100 UTC. No flashes occurred in the Red Cone pass area.
Although radar imagery is available for this case, the data must be used with a bit of caution. The nearest Doppler radar for this case KFTG, which is located just east of the Denver International Airport. The lightning injury occurred 70 miles to the west of the radar, in the Rocky Mountains along the Continental Divide. High terrain, including Mount Evans (14,264 feet) is located between the radar and where the lightning injury occurred. This high terrain blocked the lowest radar beams from diagnosing the storms which were occurring in the mountains during the time of the casualty. More about NOAA Doppler radar can be found here.
Figure 5 and 6 shows the composite radar image and 1 minute lightning flash data. Either one of these flashes caused the casualty.
Fig. 5. Composite Doppler radar from KFTG and 1 minute lightning data ending at 2127 UTC. The lightning data on this plot shows the lightning activity which occurred between 2126:59 UTC and 2126:00 UTC. The flash just below the "T" in Montezuma is just east of of Red Cone Pass. This flash occurred at 2126:20. The time stamp of the radar image denotes the time of when the beginning of the composite radar imagery begins. It takes 6 minutes to complete a radar composite when the radar is operating in VCP-21.
Fig. 6. Same as Figure 6 except the 1 minute lightning data shows the lightning activity which occurred between 2116:59 UTC and 2116:00 UTC. The composite radar volume scan began at 2112 UTC.
Figures 7 and 8 show infra red and visible satellite imagery at the time of the incident.
Depending on which flash actually caused the injury, very little to no lightning occurred in the immediate Red Cone pass area prior to the young male being struck. The nearest flash that occurred prior to the 2116:08 UTC flash (the first flash which may have caused the casualty), was located over 15 miles southwest of Red Cone Pass. Although the young man who was struck may have seen these flashes in the distance, he would have likely not seen these flashes as a threat.If the flash that occurred at 2126:20 UTC was the flash that caused the casualty, then the young man would have known that some lightning was occurring in the immediate area as he would have likely have seen (or heard) the flashes that occurred at 2116:08 and the one that occurred at 2121:22 UTC. It should be noted that these flashes were rather infrequent, as the lightning was occurring about once every 5 minutes, and the young man may not have recognized there was that high of a threat of being struck by lightning.
It is recommended that if you see any lightning in the area, hear thunder, or see dark clouds building overhead, that you should seek safe shelter.