Rainy season unleashes with fury, beauty across Arizona

After two bone-dry years that sank the U.S. Southwest deeper into drought, this summer’s rainy season unleashed with fury.

Monsoon storms have brought spectacular lightning shows, bounties of wildflowers and mushrooms, and record rainfall to the region’s deserts. They’ve also brought destruction, flooding streets and homes, and leading to some swift water rescues and several deaths.

It’s a remarkable reversal from 2019 and 2020, when the annual period known simply as "the monsoon" left the region parched. The seasonal weather pattern that runs from mid-June through September brings high hopes for rain, but the moisture isn’t guaranteed.

"That traumatized a lot of us here in the Southwest, really worried if the monsoon was broken," said Mike Crimmins, a climatologist at the University of Arizona. "And then here 2021 monsoon comes along, and it’s almost like we’re trying to make up for the last two seasons."

Tucson, in southern Arizona, marked its wettest July on record and its 16th wettest in August. The Phoenix airport is above average for the season by about an inch (2.5 centimeters) but is far from hitting the monsoon record for rainfall, the National Weather Service said. Some higher-elevation cities in metropolitan Phoenix fared better.

Payson has logged nearly a foot (30 centimeters) of rain so far — about 5 inches (12 centimeters) above normal. An area south of Flagstaff had hail that measured 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) in diameter, according to the weather service.

"That’s usually something you see in the news across the Midwest in tornado season," said meteorologist Cindy Kobolb in Flagstaff. "Forecasters that have been here for decades can’t even say the last time they’ve seen hailstones that big in the state."

Some locations like Window Rock, on the Navajo Nation, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, were just behind normal precipitation for the season and others well behind because of the hit-and-miss nature of the monsoon.

The remnants of Tropical Storm Nora pushed moisture into the region this week. With each storm, officials warn of potential flooding dangers. At least 10 people have died in Arizona since the monsoon started this year, and at least four in New Mexico in flooding events.

Historic rainfall on Flagstaff-area burn scar spurs flooding, monsoon destruction

The Northern Arizona city has seen countless storms roll in during the 2021 monsoon season and crews work day and night to clean up roads and neighborhoods.

Despite the abundant rainfall, the region is still trending toward hotter, drier weather because of climate change. All of Arizona is in some level of drought and most of New Mexico, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"I’m really trying to enjoy it for what it is right now, because I don’t think we’ll see this every summer," Crimmins said.

The monsoon is characterized by a shift in wind patterns that pull moisture in from the tropical coast of Mexico. Many cities in Arizona and New Mexico get much of their annual rainfall during the monsoon. In a strong season, the moisture extends into southern Utah, Colorado and California, Crimmins said.

The downpours can replenish shallow aquifers and boost reservoirs temporarily. But the rain isn’t a fix for drought-stricken lakes and rivers, like the Colorado River, anywhere in the U.S. West. Those systems rely primarily on melting snow and have been dwindling for more than two decades because of a megadrought.

The expected La Nina weather pattern this winter means snowpack in the West could be in short supply, forecasters say. That worries fire managers who have been battling increasingly more severe blazes, like those in California.

"The net effect of a robust monsoon is that it helps in the short-term but can set the Southwest up for an active and prolonged fire season for the following year or two," said Punky Moore, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwest Region.

The same vegetation that can fuel wildfires when it dries up also feeds insects, said Gene Hall, an entomologist at the University of Arizona. More butterflies, more moths and more pesky mosquitoes, he said.

Some insects, such as the cockroach-like Palo Verde beetle, come out only during the monsoon to mate. Flying ants and termites gather by the hundreds or thousands to mate after monsoon rain, Hall said.

Phoenix Herpetological Society warns of toxic toads being seen by many in the Valley

The Phoenix Herpetological Society says there are many frogs coming out, enjoying the monsoonal weather in Arizona right now, but there is a toad, in particular, to watch out for.

"Water is life in the desert, and we’ve had a lot of water," he said. "Everything seems to be doing pretty well."

Count mushrooms in.

Christopher May of Scottsdale has found more than 100 varieties of fungi during trips to Arizona’s mountains this summer, including some rare ones. With more rain, they’re easier to find, sometimes cloaking the forest floor like coral reef in the sea, he said.

"We have some of the best mushroom hunting in the country right now, maybe even the best," he said.

Anissa Doten has a love/hate relationship with the monsoon. She grew up in Tucson, watching the skies light up as thunderstorms rolled in and listening to the rain. It was her favorite kind of weather, magical almost, she said.

Her feelings are more complicated now that she lives in the shadow of a mountain that burned in 2019 in Flagstaff. The home she shares with her five children repeatedly has flooded this year, including during one storm that officials characterized as a "500-year" rain event.

Each time alerts go off on their phones, they rush to check weather gauges and scramble to ensure everyone is safe and someone is home to pump water and rebuild layers of sandbags.

"It’s totally different anxiety-driven action mode," she said.

Rain/flood safety tips

The American Red Cross' tips for heavy rain situations and flood safety:

  • Turn around don’t drown! If you must drive and you encounter a flooded roadway, turn around and go another way.
  • If you are caught on a flooded road and waters are rising rapidly around you, get out of the car quickly and move to higher ground.
  • Tune in to your local radio, NOAA radio, or news channels for the latest updates.
  • If your neighborhood is prone to flooding, be prepared to evacuate quickly.
  • Follow evacuation orders and do not attempt to return until officials say it is safe.
  • If power lines are down, do not step in puddles or standing water.
  • If power is out, use a flashlight. Do not use any open flame as alternate lighting.

Continued Coverage

Monsoon storm making its way over Arizona once again

Rain began to fall across counties in Arizona on Wednesday and the Flood Control District of Maricopa County said it saw impressive rainfall totals already by the afternoon as rain is expected to continue through the night.

Monsoon flooding damages border wall gates in east Arizona

A spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector confirmed the gates were open last week when water from the historic rainfall rushed through the Douglas area near the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge in Cochise County.

Arizona Gov. Ducey issues emergency declaration for Coconino County over flood damage

Gov. Doug Ducey says damage caused by post-wildfire flooding has taken a severe toll on parts of Coconino County.

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