FAQ: Chasing the Southwestern Monsoon

Jason Boggs

Good job on the photos Susan! Looking forward to seeing more of these great shots.
A little action out there right now-I love this part-



What does "localized heavy rainfall" with the Monsoon look like? It comes in pockets, where it will be a deluge in one area and no rain falling in another.
Here is an example from last summer of what that kind of rainfall looks like:

Gotta go! :)
Dec 4, 2003
Excellent writeup, Susan... I am stickying this thread so that it will be available as a permanent reference.

Thank you Tim! I'm glad people are finding it useful.

Tornado comment:

As we know, it takes many ingredients to make a tornado, Southwest tornadoes do not happen with near as much frequency or intensity as in the Plains.

Lack of a strong summer jet has been cited as one reason. Interesting to note the position of the jet stream, dipping into the Southwest, these last few days.

Look what happened, two tornado warnings took place at the end of this week near Flagstaff, and today, southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico and Santa Fe, New Mexico also became warned on.

Anyone see funnels? Feel free to comment. I'm going to look into this more.
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Date palms, originally from the Middle East, are commonly seen thoughout the Arizona and California deserts. They are one of my favorite trees. They look beautiful and provide luscious dates when they're cultivated.

The storm that night, about 2 weeks ago, was quite violent, knocking out power and battering the town of Maricopa, Arizona in the Central Deserts.

The storm in the picture is actually behind the trees a bit, maybe half a mile or so behind the little "oasis". The trees also are lit from beneath by ornamental lighting.

Hi Susan, wonderful writeup, have been enjoying it and hope to test some of it out in the near future.

In the meantime though, I'm down in Florida, and depending on what type of image I am looking for depends on which lense I use (100mm, 70-200mm, 50mm and sometimes my wide angle). Was just wondering, what lenses do you use and why? Which do you find gives you more keepers in general? And anything else that makes a difference for you while shooting.

Thanks again.

Thanks Christine! Most of the time I'm on my 50mm. Once in awhile 135 but mostly 50mm.

I'm so tired as I write this. Pictures will have to come later. Tonight was an endless freight train of massive, severe thunderstorms in PHX valley. I started working with crazy CGs in the Central Deserts then worked north for several hours. The storms soon unleashed heavy torrential downpours as well, flooding streets and blowing horizontal rain on the wind gusts like hurricane. I could only compare the constant lightning to a strobing discotheque.

Tonight was the most violent monsoon storm I have seen all summer.

Winds reached 100mph. No wonder why there is debris everywhere this morning. News:

Although this was violent, these types of conditions do occur with the Monsoon storms. A few years ago, 122mph was measured at a local north Phoenix airport. Powerlines come down somewhere almost every time there is a storm. Cloud-to-ground lightning happens frequently. Microburst is another common threat and can cause substantial damage. Flash flooding occurs as well with the torrential downpours. Monsoon storms can unleash extreme and dangerous conditions.
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While I was busy chasing the lightning in the Central Deserts Thursday night, Tempe in the Valley was getting slammed with 80mph winds. I passed through Tempe yesterday and realized the extent of the damage was quite incredible. Block after block sustained hurricane-like damage, hundreds of downed large trees, building damage, sheet metal debris, blown out windows and some collapsed garages. Cleanup down there is going to be a massive effort because of how widespread the damage is. It looked exactly like they were pounded with multiple microbursts and that people were still without power.

The 100mph winds didn't do Phoenix any favors either. Damage was spread around town.

I didn't get into too much trouble with flying debris because I was out in the deserts. I had my eye on some incredible CGs and also had to watch for flash floods and blowing sand.

But the urban stuff can get to sailing in microburst and 100mph conditions, as it happened in Tempe and Phoenix.
May 9, 2007
Scottsdale, AZ
Hi Susan, It was a wild night. Constant lightning, like strobe lights. It reminded me of some of the big midwest supercells. On 40th St. lots of downed power poles, the damage is pretty bad all over town. I got some penny sized hail but I talked to John Moore and he said he found some inch sized hail. I hope you got some great shots! Be careful out there Susan!
Well today's the day, the Monsoon 2008 season is officially ended (9/30). I'm a little sad & misty lol

A few storm highlights I experienced from very generous Arizona Monsoon 2008:

-A full haboob sandstorm in the Central Deserts
-An eerie night with constant (yes, no breaks at all in the sound) thunder for several hours - a solid line from Sacaton to Fountain Hills (East Valley) and heard reports that this was going on all over the Valley.
-Heavy building, roof and tree damage in Tempe
-Shot CGs during horizontal rain several times at Sky Harbor Airport, which was closed due to storms on more than one occasion
-Lots of powerlines down; wind even reached 100+ mph

I hope Monsoon chasers out there had fun (I know some of you hit the notorious break week of late July) but other than that... Monsoon 2008 was something else, in my book, second only to the 92-day storm fest that was 1999. I'm still processing this year's work!
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This was a simply marvelous and extremely insightful thread about the southwest monsoon. I've really enjoyed reading about all your experiences and in-depth analysis with monsoon chasing. =)

I did my fair share of monsoon chasing in New Mexico over the last few months and absolutely loved it so I can certainly appreciate and understand how so many around here fall in love with desert storms. Having just recently moved from Kansas, the storms in the southwest without a doubt behave differently than those in central plains. One thing that amazed were how high the cloud bases truly were, yet they were able to produce enormous amounts of rain in such a short amount of time. They also had a tendency to pulse quite a bit and often had a "wispy" appearance near the top of the storm where eventually the storm would become very elongated horizontally (hope that made a little sense!)

The monsoon in New Mexico was a wonderful season as well. It started around the third week in June and lasted through early-September with very few breaks in between. It was such an exciting experience to have the opportunity of seeing a thunderstorm somewhere in the vicinity of my location almost everyday during the monsoon season. The only minor downside with this season was the lack of electrical storms late at night over central NM. I believe there were only two really impressive lightning shows during the evening hours although I believe a huge reason for the lack of activity was due to the fact I was hoping to finally get some decent shots of lightning and Mother Nature decided to show her sense of humor as soon as the camera and tripod came out, haha.

I can understand and sympathize with the monsoon season coming to a close so I'll shed those tears with ya, lol. I am about to get horribly spoiled with the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta beginning this weekend so that should help curb some of the monsoon withdrawals.

Thanks again for such an informative thread. Can't wait to see some more amazing images from this monsoon season!
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Will Wilkens

Susan, the monsoon season was truly remarkeable for AZ this year (2008). I live in SoCal near Lake Elsinore and we get affected here by the western-most surges of the monsoon flows, but not as often as I would like :( . Monsoon season has been my passion since my childhood :D . Thanks for sharing such spectacular photos on your website. Hope to meet up with you sometime out in Az during my chases. I love lightning photography and am always in "hot" pursuit of lightning shots of my own.


Dennis Dennison

Ok--be sure to stay in touch with me--I live in Az and would like to co-op some chases,the stuff in feb/march is always wild. so maybe we can join up and shoot some good pics/video?
So true about SoCal - my first monsoon thunderstorm I had ever experienced was getting pounded by huge CGs in the Inland Empire and also Palm Springs at 4am later on while driving east toward Phoenix. LA is not exempt from monsoon. Good times =)

So glad to hear from others who chase monsoon! This year was one to remember. It was so extremely active and wild, with an exception of a window in late July that was Dolly-impacted, Mark is right about that. Also, that is when some film crews were here from the UK so we really had to work hard for it that week! But then the faucet turned back on again and things got really crazy particularly in the Central Deserts where I found myself night after night.

Dennis you chase the equinox? Weird stuff happens at that time of year around here. Feb/Mar - mostly quiet but strange weather can kick up, from a stray lightning storm to a late snow that covers golf courses!

J. Sims

Nov 29, 2008
Topeka, Kansas
I live in the Sedona area about 50 miles south of Flagstaff on 89A in the town of Cottonwood. We have not gotten a very intense severe thunderstorm in about 3 years i think it is becase that we live so close to Mingus Mountain. I am missing the intense storms that seemed to always happen in this area. those kind of storms seem to intensify around the Sedona area. And good pictures by the way and have you ever done any chasing in the Sedona region?
Up there you do seem to get the storms during the daytime. Watch for an H over the NW corner of AZ and perhaps those synoptics will bring a second wave of storms, at night, that flow from northeast AZ/Navajo Nation SW toward Flag. I learned that from NWS Bellemont, although I would have to be up there already, staying in Sedona or Flag. In Cottonwood, you are a lot closer to that potential action. I have quick access to the Mogollon Rim, Eastern Mountains and Central Deserts. The Central Deserts are very active at night.

Good nighttime action can also be found in the Bradshaws. However most of the roads are dirt and washboardy, but you can get stuff over the range.

Cottonwood is a nice town. I recently shot a segment with the TWC Road Crew right there in Cottonwood. Except I wouldn't recommend chasing on Mingus Mountain...one of the gnarliest roads in the State lol. That would be one for your diary :)

Will Wilkens

Josh, I live in SoCal and I track the monsoon season obsessively ;-)....I watched some gnarly storms on GRL3 and satellite form just north of Prescott last couple of summers and they move to the SW. Are these the same type of scenarios that you expect yet haven't seen in three years? I remember one summer a few years ago tracking some massive MCS complexes between Prescott and Sedona and it just tore me up not to be there to see them first hand. I'm planning to ramp up my chases and photo opportunites this summer in Az. I expect a lot of smiles and very little sleep... ;-)

Will Wilkens

Oh, Susan.... My buddy Gerry and I are planning a 4 day chase excursion based out of Tuscon. We are targeting the last week of July or first week of August (a Friday-Monday). Since we both followed the seemingly endless nocturnal action last summer we are hoping for the same experience. You mention the central deserts being the best for the nocturnals. Gerry's sister lives in Chandler, so would this be a better base area and where do you recommend to fan out from there if so?
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Will Wilkens

Susan, forgive me for my post-fest here, but I have a question: I don't have much info on the effects that La Nina has on the NA Monsoon, although I do have diaries and hand-written personal "blogs" on past monsoon seasons in SoCal going back to the early 80's (yikes I'm not THAT old!) but I was wondering if you remember anything about how the NA Monsoon is affected by La Nina as it pertains to Az in particular, since we are currently in a La Nina......
Hi Will,

Regarding Monsoon 2008 yes it was spectacular. My second best year ever, for lightning and haboob photos, just behind 1999.

I guess it depends on one's perspective. There is also a Facebook page called "I survived the Arizona Monsoon 2008" or something to that effect. There was a lot of heavy damage with the August storms of '08, so I'm assuming these are people talking about the effects.

As for whether Tucson or Chandler would be a better chase-base, that depends on the time of year. If it is early, June/early July, I would say Tucson. By mid July the monsoon is up in Phoenix and I think PHX is more favorable for more chances for night storms. Chandler is good because it is in the SE Valley and that tends to get hammered more often.

Either Chandler or Tucson has about equal access to the Central Deserts.

Re: La Nina... it seems that La Nina years are hotter and drier, but that doesn't seem to make a difference to me because I'll go anywhere in the state for the lightning. If the deserts are dry, I'll go to the Mogollon Rim, which is a pine forest. The Rim is a lightning magnet. If the northern half of the state is dry, then I'll head to Benson/Willcox/Tombstone or Bisbee because the SE corner of the state gets the most generous monsoon flow. There are many factors, not just synoptics too, that help generate storms. I could write a huge page on favorite hot spots, but let me know if I answered your questions :)

5 months and counting!