How About That Storm Thursday Night?

Jul 26, 2013

Lightning strikes in Albuquerque.
Credit Nathan Orona

I have always associated the word "monsoon" with India. Conversely, words like "arid" and "parched" I associate with the Southwestern United States, not just as descriptions, but as central facts about the regions.

These associations are incorrect.

An overnight storm in Albuquerque is still causing problems for the city. According to KRQE the storm brought flooding, with reports of homes being filled with up to five feet of water,  power cuts for up to 10,000 residents in Santa Fe, and scattered outages in Albuquerque.

The National Weather Service estimates about 1,000 lightning strikes in the Albuquerque area alone overnight, two to three inches of rain in some parts of the city, and isolated incidents of hail, the largest being penny-sized.

The storm sent pets scurrying for cover under beds and brought out the shutterbugs, who shared photos using the Twitter hashtag #NMWX.  But it turns out a dramatic summer storm like this one isn't really all that uncommon.

"This is typical of monsoon weather as far as having storms develop and outflow boundaries create new storms," said Jason Frazier of the Albuquerque National Weather Service. "There have been other areas in New Mexico that have seen this much rain in a 24 hour period because they got these heavy and efficient storms that produced a lot of rainfall."

In other words, Albuquerque and northen New Mexico are not special. But the monsoon is.

First, a little background.

The word “monsoon” comes from the Arabic word mausim, meaning “season.” The seasonal wind shift is usually accompanied by a dramatic change in precipitation.

But whether or not monsoons actually exist in North America was a hotly debated topic until the late 1970s, when considerable research "culminated in the Southwest Arizona Monsoon Project (SWAMP) in 1990 and 1993, established the fact that a bonafide monsoon, characterized by large-scale wind and rainfall shifts in the summer, develops over much of Mexico and the intermountain region of the U.S."

With names like "The Mexican Monsoon," "Summer Thunderstorm Season," and "The Southwest Monsoon," these storms are caused by two things: winter wind moving north, and rising heat from the desert floor. Put these elements together, and sometimes you'll get enough of a show to move Queen to pen a few lyrics about the weather.

The problem (if one can call it that) with the rainy season is that it can cause some dangerous conditions. Flash flooding is the biggest worry in places like Southern New Mexico where Red Cross volunteers are currently responding to storm-damaged communities. The silver lining, you could say, is that a good rainy season might help with drought.

"We have at this point in the month, more precipitation than we had last July," Frazier said. "For comparison sake, last July for the entire month, we only had 0.84 inches of rainfall, and this month already we have 1.38 inches of rainfall. So we're a little bit ahead as far as for the month, but as far as impacts for drought, this is only really a blip on the radar to actually end the drought status that we're still in."