Sonoran Desert Experience…thru “lens & pen!”
Hi … I’m Cyndy Warnier, the Program & Development Director here at Spirit in the Desert. I am the shutter-bug of the photos you see on our website. I am also a lover of the desert, and along with my husband, Al who also works here and is an arborist, study the desert through my lens as well as through forums to learn about its unique flora and fauna. So, from my “lens & pen”–welcome to a “Sonoran Desert Experience!” Each month I will post an article, with pictures-of course, about life in this beautiful and diverse desert. Birds, mammals, reptiles…even an arachnid or two, plus a variety of plants whose botany is specific to Arizona’s portion of the Sonoran Desert–and all whose existence are endangered. Our registration lobby features many of my photos in a variety of matted sizes, as well as on 5×7 photo cards, complete with blank insides or nice mix of all-occasion prose. You can always “take away a bit of the desert” in my pictures to remind you of your stay at Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center.
Let’s talk about Monsoons in Arizona! Although not as strong as the Asian monsoon where some countries are literally wiped off the map, the monsoon cycle is typical worldwide. Some people think monsoon means a single furious thunderstorm, but it really describes “a large scale weather pattern.”
The word itself is Arabic: mausin, and it can be interpreted as a ‘season’ or a ‘wind shift.’ Either way, this season can wreak havoc in parts of Africa, Asia, North America, Australia and Europe.
For those of us in Arizona, we relish the rains for our thirsty desert, but the trade-off is that our “dry heat” becomes a hotter-wet-sticky-heat! It used to be that in late June the mercury rose to uncomfortable levels. But, as the Valley of the Sun has increased in size, with pavement, concrete, reflective windows, removal of ground water, etc., a new phenomenon called a “heat island” now moves the calendar back to the end of May/start of June. Dry grasses bake in relentless sun and most folks park by shade coverage rather than distance. Winds start blowing in and huge cumulus thunderheads darken the sky as anvils build in the clouds and voila!–down come the drops and the monsoon season has arrived.
What causes this phenomenon? Warm air creating surface low-pressure zones that, in turn, draw moist air from the oceans. Arizona winds usually come from the west, but shift to a southeasterly wind in the summer, bringing moisture, most often from the Gulfs of Mexico and California. The wind shift and increase in moisture combine with the surface low pressure from the desert heat to produce storms in a cycle of “bursts” (heavy rainfall) and “breaks” (reduced rainfall). Before the rain, the wind shift can trigger dust storms known as haboobs, which appear as loose swirling walls of dust several hundred feet high. Tiny tornadoes, or a wind vortex, can be especially destructive to homeowners. And of course, the flash flooding notices flood the TV screen as well as emergency notices on cell phones.
The North American monsoon occurs over northwest Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Utah. The southern desert parts of Arizona and western New Mexico usually experience more strong winds and receive the most rainfall. For years, the North American monsoon season’s existence was initially debated, but it was legitimized by organizations like the Southwest Arizona Monsoon Project (SWAMP) and the North American Monsoon Experiment (NAME). No doubt, the mounting insurance claims prompted the thought that this season is indeed valid!
The entire “season” is not continual rains and winds, though. The storms peak at their worst usually between mid-July and mid-August. On average, the desert third of Arizona receives about half of its annual rainfall during the monsoon. Arizona as a total, receives a statewide average of only 12.5 inches of rain per year. The hardest hit areas are the mountainous regions, which are less populated. The many individual mountain ranges, called Sky Islands and the Mogollon Rim act as a focusing mechanism for thunderstorms. Mountain ranges truly due create their own weather patterns anyway.
Downpours are often short in duration, but rainfall is heavy and it can skip around, some portions get spits others get floods. Of course, in the mountains, rain can come in torrents that cause flash floods that can be deadly and devastating. And because the Western USA is prone to wildfires, when water picks up debris from those fire-damaged areas, the combined force of the roiling water and heavy objects is capable of causing mudslides that can wipe out trees, roads, homes, etc…in a matter of minutes. Those road blocks warning you not to cross are vital to heed—they can truly save a life.
So, we may not have year-round inches of rain like the Northwest receives; we may not have showers like the Midwest, but we do get rain and in monsoon season, it’s quite a sight! Along with lightning and thunder that rivals a sonic boom, the desert monsoon season puts on quite a show!
Now, about that “non-soon season?” Sometimes there is just not enough moisture in our dry desert for the clouds to absorb. We get hazy, humid days, but sadly not enough moisture to create the rains needed, thus the “non-soon” title. It’s then we get busy with prayer, Kokopelli rain dances, put up our umbrellas, hang out the laundry and wash cars—surely that works to bring the rains, right?-Ha—just like when we were kids, it’s hard to fool mom—and “Mother Nature!”
Enjoy the accompanying pictures, courtesy of local weather stations, and the NOAA.