Monday, July 30, 2007

Monsoon Season

It is Monsoon season right now in Arizona. When I moved here I assumed there were only two seasons: cool, wet, winter or hot, dry, summer. I've since discovered there are five seasons here; winter, spring, dry summer, monsoon, and autumn. I can't comment on autumn yet because I haven't experienced it. Being from New England, it would take a lot to impress me, but spring was beautiful with the desert in bloom, and dry summer was just that; hot, dry, and very sunny. We had a 36 day streak of temperatures over 100 degrees before the Monsoon hit and the temperature dropped into the 90's.

What I didn't realize before was that with the Monsoon came the humidity. Having moved here to the desert, I had hoped I could avoid this uncomfortable atmospheric aggravation. However, much to my dismay, the humidity during the monsoon is almost as bad as it can be in Connecticut! Though the outside temperature may be cooler, the humidity makes it much more uncomfortable to be outside. When it is 100 during dry summer it might be too hot to be outside at noontime, but once the sun drops, so does the temperature and the evenings and mornings are pleasantly cool until the sun rises again. With the humidity in the air, the soggy warmth follows you into the night and your hair clings to your neck like soggy noodles or a wet octopus.

One of the chief benefits of monsoon is the rain. Most rain comes with thunder and lightening making a spectacular lightening show in the sky. The rain falls in curtains across the desert and the mountains, running off in huge cascades into washes and rivers. I've been driving over these dry rivers and washes since I've arrived here. I've seen their steep banks with railings along some, and dry sandy earth below. I laughed at their audacity to call themselves a river. People rode horses up the Pantano Wash and others rode 4-wheelers in the Santa Cruz River. But now I have seen these same washes fill to overflowing. Nightly the news carries stories of people who have to be rescued from the washes. Sometimes kids or teens take inflatable rafts and try to float down the raging torrents, only to be trapped on sandbars or in trees. The lucky ones get rescued. The unlucky are recovered.

It occurs to me that Monsoon season is like winter in the northeast. It is the most active weather time here and the weather forecasters hyperventilate with excitement. The rains and flash flooding close roads. Micro bursts cause power outages and cancel schools and businesses. The weather is almost always the lead story of the night and dust storms often precede the rains, causing low visibility as they scour the countryside.

My house is built with a wash behind it and a holding basin beside it. It has been dry ever since we moved in, though we have had a few storms. Still, I had never seen the wash run or the basin fill, but now the ground is saturated and last Monday we had a torrential downpour.

I was home alone at the time. Lightening cracked the leaden sky. Wind whipped my velvet mesquite tree and rain poured down in sheets of gray so thick that I was unable to see the mountain behind me and I could barely make out the homes across the wash. My small back yard became a coffee colored puddle with a creek running through it towards the street. I ran from window to window watching the excitement and photographing it whenever possible. I had to see if the wash was running, and so grabbed my umbrella and went outside to see what I could see. The holding basin rapidly filled as a churning chocolate colored river of runoff cascaded down the wash. The force of the water carved a huge crevice in the earth and tumbled the rip rap down into the basin. This was soon buried in sand and clay as the water rose ever higher towards the spillway. It finally crested just 2 to 3 feet bellow the overflow, but other holding basins were not so lucky. The one at the bottom of the cul de sac across from me filled to overflowing and spilled off into the desert.

As the storm abated I had to see what the other washes in my neighborhood were doing. I grabbed my cameras and jumped in my car. I drove down the street and found two washes raging. But then, the next wash down was completely dry with no flowing water! This caused me to shake my head in disbelief at the marvels of nature and hydrology. I drove out to the main road just to see how far I could go but I didn't get more than a quarter of a mile before I encountered water over the road. I pulled off to the side to photograph the sign that said "Do not enter when flooded," then watched as 4 vehicles drove through the rushing water. I turned my car around and drove home. I didn't want to be one of those people who showed up on the nightly news or got a "Stupid Motorist" ticket for crossing a clearly marked flood zone.

That particular storm pulled down 10 power poles in one location. The storm we had this past weekend pulled down 14 in another. Some people are still without power today. While the road crews here don't have to plow snow, they do have to go out and barricade roads during these storms. Afterwards they send out trucks and tractors to plow away the rocks, sand, and debris that the floods leave in their wakes. We may not get snowstorms here in Arizona, but we certainly get weather worth talking about!

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