What You Should Know About the Arizona Monsoon

When we told people we were moving to the desert, the objection we got the most was the perceived lack of seasons in Arizona. It’s just cactus and dirt, right?

“I could never live in a place without seasons.”

The truth is that there are seasons here, and every season has something to offer. In summer, it’s monsoon: the annual weather pattern shift that brings powerful thunderstorms with brilliant lightning and bone-shaking thunder.

What is the Arizona Monsoon?

The Arizona monsoon, also known as the North American monsoon, is a weather pattern change that occurs in the southwestern portion of the United States and the northwestern part of México.

Between the middle of June until near the end of September, winds shift and bring in moisture from the ocean. The moisture mixes with summer heat and fuels the development of thunderstorms.

Arizona can receive up to half of its annual rainfall during monsoon. Desert plants, creatures, and humans alike look forward to it.

Monsoon is equal parts wonder and danger, and it’s a season to be both appreciated and respected.

desert spiny lizard on a branch
Animals like monsoon, too! This absolute unit Desert Spiny Lizard was out after a good rain looking for insects. And probably a mate. 😉

What Happens During the Arizona Monsoon?

The Good

The desert, while never dead, springs to attention. Dormant plants, such as the spiny Ocotillo, sprout leaves and flowers. The patchwork of green colors intensify, and animals come out of their hiding places.

The rain makes it more humid than usual, but it also cools things down. Dry river beds called washes flow and the fresh smell of creosote hangs in the air. Clouds hug the mountains, and we’re treated to amazing lightning shows.

The Bad

Isolated downpours and flash flooding endangers hikers and motorists. Lightning starts wildfires and damages property.

Microbursts, strong downdraft winds from thunderstorms, stir up particulates from the desiccated earth and push gigantic walls of dust over roads and into cities.

These dust storms are called Haboobs, and while they’re something to behold, getting caught in one is hazardous.

clouds hanging over catalina mountains in tucson arizona
Clouds hang over Thimble Peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and a field of mighty Saguaro cacti waits to receive rain

How to Enjoy the Arizona Monsoon Safely

Monsoon is a season of fun and excitement, but there are also considerable dangers to be aware of.

Flash Flooding

Turn around, don’t drown. Never drive around barricades and through rushing water. It only takes a few inches of fast-running water to sweep your car away.

A smart motorist turns around at a flooded wash in Arizona
A smart motorist turns around at a flooded wash

If the water looks shallow, it’s probably deeper than you think. The floods often drag layers of sticky mud and large rocks over the road. If the water doesn’t get you, the mud and rocks will.

Never go hiking in canyons when there’s a chance of thunderstorms. It doesn’t have to rain near you for flood waters to head your way. Rushing water can show up in a matter of minutes from a storm that happened miles from you.

You might not hear the water coming. And if you do, you may not have enough time to get yourself to safety.

Lightning

If you hear thunder, go inside even if you don’t see lightning. Go in a house, get in your car, or find a sturdy shelter.

Stay inside for around 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder clap. Unplug expensive electronics and consider using a surge protector.

Plan outdoor activities early when storms are less likely to strike, and make sure scared pets are indoors and secure.

motorhome with a bolt of lightning behind it
Yikes! That lightning is too close. Time to seek shelter.

Dust Storms

Pull aside, stay alive. Dust storm safety sounded counterintuitive to me when I first heard it.

If you get caught by a dust storm while driving, pull off the road surface as quickly and safely as possible. Don’t wait for visibility to deteriorate.

In low visibility situations, other drivers will try to use your vehicle’s lights as a guide. They’ll follow your lights thinking they’re following a moving vehicle and may crash into you.

Get out of the travel lanes and the emergency lane. Put your car in park, turn your lights off, and wait for the storm to pass.

Our annual monsoon brings with it a mixture of blessings and curses. While it’s nothing like the tornadic storms we dealt with in the Midwest, monsoon storms have their own unique set of challenges.

By being aware of the dangers and how to keep yourself safe, we hope you can sit back and enjoy the beauty and power of Arizona’s monsoon. Thanks for reading!