Creosote - after rain

Rain in the Desert: Monsoon Weather in Phoenix

When you live in the desert and wake up to the sound of thunder and rain, you smile. You listen for a few seconds in this half-awake state, to make sure you’re not imagining it. Then, as soon as you realize you are not dreaming, it is indeed rain in the desert you are hearing, you jump out of bed and run outside.

You want to experience it before it’s over.

You stand there, barefoot, soaking, laughing. It’s raining, it’s pouring, it’s a real monsoon morning! As you knew it would though, a few minutes later it all stops. It’s ok. Sometimes, it finally rains enough for ground to stay wet for a few hours. And you got to see it, you got to get soaked. The early bird in Arizona gets the rain – sometimes…

Monsoon in Phoenix

It’s real monsoon weather in Phoenix, and this time it brought rain. It’s been raining for a few days, and we love it! We’ve experienced both violent storms with a heavy rainfall the Diné call male rain, followed by quiet, slow rain they call female rain. It even cooled down enough for us to take a walk in the desert. (Walking in the desert in July is not an everyday occurrence, especially for those of us who can’t take extreme heat.)

Usually everything is brown here this time of the year. Now it all suddenly turned green. Nature just woke up …

The air smells of creosote, and the distinctive olive-green bush with oily leaves is filled with bright yellow flowers. Wildflowers and a barrel cactus, withered and dry a few days ago, are blooming… dragonflies and birds fill the air, lizards and desert rats scuttle on the ground… I notice a jackrabbit with long ears hopping across the trail, and a cardinal, with its bright red plumage flying by. The desert is awake…

What Is Monsoon?

Chances are, if you don’t live in the Southwest you haven’t heard of or experienced monsoon weather. You might not even know what I am talking about. Unless you live in India and Southeast Asia, where they also experience monsoon weather, and where the term originated from. So what is this monsoon?

A seasonal weather pattern due to reversing the direction of the winds, monsoon weather usually brings heavy rain and wind to the scorched deserts. Strong winds, sudden heavy rainfall, flash floods are all characteristics of the monsoon season.

The North American Monsoon in the US Southwest

The one we experience in the Southwest, the North American monsoon happens in the middle of the summer, usually in July. It is caused by the winds from the Gulf of California meeting the winds from the Gulf of Mexico. Both carry warm, moist air, and when they meet they bring heavy rainfall and strong winds through the Southwest. The resulting rainfall is the source of most of the water for the desert ecosystem of the region.

No wonder we, desert dwellers, love the monsoon and celebrate its arrival. We finally have rain in the desert! We don’t even mind that it comes with flash floods. Although, inevitably, during each heavy rainfall, rescuers need to pull out cars from flooded streets. Those who get stuck haven’t lived in the desert long, or are only visitors in the area.

In a good year, monsoon brings enough rain to sustain the desert vegetation throughout the year. However, the past few years the monsoons brought little rain, if any at all. So, this season, we were especially happy when we got the flash flood warning, thunder, lightning, and sudden heavy rainfall for a few days in a row. Even better, we also had a had a slow, steady rain for most of a day.

Walking in the Desert in July Is Only Possible After Rain

Normally, we are hibernating in July in the desert. If we leave the house, we go to indoor museums, stores, or other establishments. Or we leave Phoenix altogether.

But after a few days of monsoon weather, when several rainstorms help drop the temperatures, it is sometimes possible to take a short walk in the desert, on one of the hiking trails in town. Though I expected it to get hot and humid when the sun came out, after months sitting inside, I chanced it. Fortunately, the clouds remained, and with a breeze added to it, the half-mile-long walk was pleasant the whole time.

The Desert After Rain

The unmistakable scent of the creosote after rain enveloped us as we stepped on the trail. And as I walked a few steps, I noticed the first bush with its oily leaves and bright yellow flowers. A few days ago it its leaves were shriveled so not to lose any moisture, and flowers were nonexistent. Now, it was full of flowers.

Creosote after rain
Creosote bush after rain

As we turned a bend, a mighty saguaro in bloom stood alone by the trail, its arms swollen by the recent rain. A bird was perched on top.

saguaro after rain with its swollen trunk and arms
Saguaro after rain

The palo verde trees were greener than usual, and I noticed new growth and leaves on them. Desert wildflowers popped up on the side of the trail.

Birds and dragonflies were everywhere. Desert rats and prairie dogs poked their heads out of their burrows, and I even spotted a large jackrabbit hopping across the trail. The desert woke up after the recent rain.

How To Handle Monsoon Weather in the Sonoran Desert

As much as we love it, monsoon weather or the summer rains are unpredictable, and if you don’ t understand it, and it catches you unprepared, you might have some trouble with it. And while most of us desert dwellers love the break from the 100+ temperatures, the trade-off is humidity that doubles with the still-present heat, so it is still uncomfortable. Besides that, our monsoon season poses a few other dangers that you should know how to handle.

Monsoon weather in the Sonoran Desert comes with dust storms, thunderstorms with heavy rain causing flash floods, lightning, high winds, hail, and extreme heat.

Dust Storms

Monsoon weather doesn’t always bring rain to the Sonoran Desert. It often brings heavy winds and dust storms that reduce visibility to zero and fills the streets of Phoenix with sand. They often precede rain storms, but sometimes they only leave us with the dust.

Fortunately, most dust storms are not extreme, but sometimes we see mile-high walls of dust, that turn the streets of Phoenix into a sandy beach. These are called haboobs, an Arabic term, since these extreme dust storms are most prevalent in the Middle East.

Avoid being outside during a dust storm, and if you get caught in one while driving, pull over and wait for it to pass. They rarely last long. But some can be extremely dangerous.

Flash Floods

I know; it sounds contradictory to use desert and flood in the same sentence. Yet, we get flash floods in the desert every time a heavy rain hits. We are used to is, take it as a good sign, but it poses some dangers for those who are new to the desert and ignore the flash-flood warnings on the cellphones and radio.

The dry, hard-packed soil of the desert doesn’t absorb sudden water very well, as much as it needs it. And, though we only get about 12 inches of rain in a year, it comes all at once, during the monsoon storms. This combination always causes flash floods.

When we get a sudden downpour, water collects on the surface and runs along washes, and dry riverbeds, turning them temporarily into actual rivers. And water in these washes collects fast, gets deep and runs fast. Which makes it dangerous. So, when you hear about rain or the “flash flood warning” signal, make sure you stay away from washes and low areas of the desert. People drown each year in these riverbeds.

In cities, sections of roads and freeways will flood and underpasses might turn into washes after a heavy downpour. In Phoenix alone, we alway see cars and trucks stuck in water when drivers ignore the warning signs. The roads and underpasses that flood are clearly marked, with warning signs not to enter when flooded. The water is deeper than it seems, even if it only rained for a few hours.

Don’t be the car that gets stuck, waiting for the fire department to rescue you. Arizona allows rescuers and cities to charge you if you get stuck in the water in areas clearly marked with warning about flash floods. You’ll see signs like “do not enter when flooded”, take the warning seriously.

Driving in the Rain

Even if you avoid flooded roads, you still need to deal with Phoenix drivers. We might know to avoid flooded areas, but we don’t know how to drive in the rain. Be patient with us, we only see rain once or twice a year, that doesn’t give us enough experience to know what to do with wet roads and low visibility.

And, besides wet and slippery roads, the sun comes out soon after rain (or stays out while raining), making these wet roads turn into mirrors where you can’t see the lines. Good sunglasses might help; yes, in Phoenix you might need them even in the rain.

The good news is, most of us avoid driving in the rain, and since we are aware that we don’t know what we are doing, we drive slower than need to. At least that should count as safety measure.

Phoenix driving in the rain
You don’t have to worry about heavy traffic in the rain in Phoenix

Lightning

We love the light shows that accompany rainstorms, but it’s best to watch them from indoors.

Hail and Extreme Heat

Yes, you can experience both in Arizona during the same season. Though if hail happens, it is usually at higher elevation – we’ve seen it in Flagstaff in July, and it cools the temperatures to more comfortable levels, the cold doesn’t last long. The extreme heat comes from humidity added to the already hot desert temperatures.

Still, with All its Dangers, We Love the Monsoon Season, Especially When It Brings Rain into the Desert

For one, it brings change to the dry heat we are used to. And it usually brings rain and water to the parched desert, waking it up. In a good year, it soaks the ground enough that everything, from saguaros and other cacti, to palo verde trees and desert wildflowers bloom or turn a brighter shade of green.

And we love the smell of creosote, the smell that always means rain in the desert. Rain that allows desert creatures to survive, desert plants to thrive. And this year is the monsoon is especially welcome, since it is bringing rain, as it used to. Last year, we haven’s seen rain all summer, so this year’s rainfall is a reason for celebration in the Southwest. Even if it comes with flash floods and other dangers.

3 thoughts on “Rain in the Desert: Monsoon Weather in Phoenix”

  1. Ah, it is delightful when it rains in the desert and a few days later you see unusual things coming to life. Glad you wrote about your experience. I am sure it doesn’t happen often.

  2. Great post! I love the smell of creosote after it rains. We lived in Phoenix for over 20 years and never got tired of the rain. In fact, we live in Virginia right now and are planning to move back to AZ. One of the things I know I’ll miss is all the rain in VA. You provided a great overview of how the weather works out there. Many people in other parts of the country just can’t imagine the downpours.

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, I know; People think of the desert only as dry, but they never understand the rain. Wow though, you miss it enough to move back? Every summer we talk about moving away from Phoenix, but as soon as it rains or cools down a bit we realize that we would miss the desert – though not the city.

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