Time Machine Tuesday: Denver-area Tornadoes

The June 3, 1981 tornado in Thornton. Photo courtesy NCAR.

Forty years ago this week, the Denver metropolitan area was hit by one of the worst storms in its history.

On the afternoon of June 3, 1981, thunderstorms developed — not uncommon for early June in eastern Colorado. But, these storms would prove to be anything but typical, with the conditions just right to produce several strong tornadoes. According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR),

An aerial analysis of the damage from the tornado outbreak that ripped through parts of Denver, Wednesday, June 3, proved that three separate funnel clouds, classified from 0 to 2 on the Fujita tornado scale, touched down in the greater metropolitan area. The first tornado touched down at 2:23 p.m. at 6th and Sheridan in Lakewood; the second slammed into Thornton at 88th and Washington at 2:43 p.m.; and the third hit Fort Lupton, northeast of Denver, at 3:31 p.m.

Of these, the tornado that hit Thornton was the most destructive. With 157mph winds, the Thornton tornado destroyed dozens of homes and damaged hundreds more. About forty people were injured, according to a story in the New York Times.

North of the metro area, the same storm caused significant flooding in the town of Milliken. The flooding was caused by over 3.5 inches of rain in under two hours. Colorado Water Conservation Board produced a report on the flood, The Milliken Flood of June 3, 1981, Weld County, Colorado, which can be viewed online from the State Publications Library’s digital collection. Other digitized materials related to the 1981 storm can also be viewed at the City of Thornton’s digital archive, which was recently profiled in a Colorado Virtual Library blog article.

June 3, 1981 tornado map
This map, from the Colorado Climate Center, shows the path of the first of the three June 3, 1981 tornadoes, which hit near 6th and Sheridan in Denver.

Several other notable tornadoes have hit the Denver area in the month of June, including two I remember well — the June 15, 1988 tornadoes that caused damage near Broadway and Evans as well as in northeast Denver; and the June 18, 2013 tornado that touched down near the runways at Denver International Airport. Another metropolitan-Denver area tornado hit the Southlands shopping center in Aurora on June 7, 2009. Statewide, some of the most famous June tornadoes have included an EF-3 tornado that hit Berthoud on June 4, 2015; and the June 6, 1990 tornado in Limon, which was one of the most destructive tornadoes in the state’s history.

Colorado averages about sixty tornadoes a year, according to the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. To learn more about tornadoes in Colorado, visit the Colorado Climate Center’s Climatology of Severe Weather Reports webpage. Here you can access interactive maps of severe weather events in Colorado from 1955 to 2019.