The many moods of the San Fransisco Peaks

Living near the mountains and at a high elevation in Flagstaff has its benefits. One of them is the opportunity to capture amazing images of the San Francisco Peaks as the seasons and weather change.

Recent snowfalls provided two very different views of the Peaks. First we have the peaks obscured by clouds. A laminar wave cloud floats above the peaks while other clouds cloak the summits. Skiers and hikers at the top of the mountain are hidden in the clouds and fog only to drop out of the bottom of the cloud as they descend.

Wave clouds above the San Francisco Peaks.
Wave clouds above the San Francisco Peaks.

Another image captures the final moments of sunset as the snow turns red across the peaks. These colors might only last for a minute or two before quickly fading away.

Sunset colors on the San Francisco Peaks.
Sunset colors on the San Francisco Peaks.

The price we pay for these incredible views? Long winters, cold temperatures, and roads that don’t seem to get plowed quickly enough — or at all.

A fair trade.

Yet another tornado for Northern Arizona

Last week another tornado moved across northern Arizona. The damage produced by this tornado was confined to a small area and was nothing like the tornado outbreak of 06 October 2010.

What makes this tornado interesting is where it occurred. The tornado formed just west of the San Francisco Peaks and then moved up the west flank of Humphreys Peak. Damage was isolated along the early portion of the path at around 9000 feet. As it moved up the mountain, damage increased in intensity and coverage with the peak damage occurring near 9800 feet. Farther up the mountain isolated damage continued until the tornado dissipated near 10500 feet.

The worst damage occurred as the tornado crossed the Humphreys Trail just a short distance from the trail register. In the first few days after the event travel along this section of the trail can best be characterized as challenging. Climbing over and under downed trees — and around others — certainly slows the hiking pace.

Somewhere under all those trees is the Humphreys Trail.
Somewhere under all those trees is the Humphreys Trail.

This is not the highest elevation tornado of record. That belongs to a tornado that occurred in the Sierra Nevada mountains a few years ago with evidence of damage at elevations above 12000 feet.

The  limited damage inflicted upon the mountain might never have been noticed if it had not passed over a heavily used hiking trail. Now that’s serendipity. Or bad luck.

Nobody saw the tornado so all we have to go on is the radar data. And according to that information the event occurred between 5:25 and 5:35 pm on 14 September 2011.

Lightning and Mammatus: The beauty of thunderstorms

The North American Monsoon is bringing thunderstorms to the southwest United States including northern Arizona. You would think that with almost daily thunderstorms it would be easy to shoot great images of lightning and thunderstorms. Well, not always…

One of the characteristics of the rainy season in the higher elevations of northern Arizona is that as the storms develop in the late morning or early afternoon it quickly becomes overcast so that it is difficult to see the individual storms. It is equally difficult to photograph lightning because it is often raining over large areas obscuring the view of the lightning.

Lightning in Sunset Crater National Monument.
Lightning in Sunset Crater National Monument.

So I was particularly pleased when we had two days in a row in which I was able to photograph lightning and actually see the thunderstorms. The lightning was photographed in Sunset Crater National Monument overlooking the Bonito Lava Flow; the mountain that it is striking is O’Leary Peak. There is a fire lookout station at the summit of the peak and I’m certain they get their fair share of close bolts.

Sunset colors on an Arizona thunderstorm.
Sunset colors on an Arizona thunderstorm.

The following day proved equally photogenic. This thunderstorm was photographed in late afternoon and is quite dramatic with mammatus clouds visible from the anvil region of the storm.

If only everyday was as photogenic as these two.

Lightning across the landscape of northern Arizona

The North American Monsoon (NAM) is in full swing across the southwestern states and the daily showers and thunderstorms present many opportunities for dramatic lighting and lightning.

Earlier this week I traveled to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park hoping to get some sunset images with storm clouds hanging over the canyon. Well, there certainly were clouds — and there wasn’t much of a sunset. The backup plan was to photograph lightning. On this count, the storms didn’t disappoint. There was a storm to the west and I was able to point the camera across the lines of cliffs and rock faces that were already falling into deep shadow in the late twilight. And off in the distance was a great flash of lightning.

Lightning over the Grand Canyon.
Lightning over the Grand Canyon.

A few days later I tried once again to capture twilight lightning — this time at Sunset Crater National Monument. A storm developed in early evening and moved to the northeast over the lower terrain of the Painted Desert in the Little Colorado River Valley.

Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.
Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.

In the foreground can be seen the Ponderosa Pine trees at the higher elevations in the Monument; in the middle distance are some of the many cinder cones that are a part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field; in the far distance are the lower elevations of the Painted Desert.

Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.
Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.

With the typical NAM lasting through early September there should be plenty of opportunities for more dramatic lightning photographs.

Springtime snow in northern Arizona

It’s been an interesting spring as the La Niña conditions of this past winter continue to abate. One of the characteristics of this diminishing pattern has been for low pressure systems to drop southeastward from the eastern Pacific and west coast and then across the southwestern states. Springtime low pressure systems routinely move across the southwest and bring strong winds to Arizona and these systems have been quite normal in that respect, that is, it’s been very windy.

But they have also brought the core of the low pressure system farther south than is typical and across Arizona. The result has been a combination of below normal temperatures and above normal rain along with snow in the higher elevations.

We had three days of snow last week — but only trace amounts fell across the area — and now we are having a real bona fide snow event. A few inches of snow have accumulated at elevations above 7000 feet.

Snowy scene in northern Arizona - in mid May.
Snowy scene in northern Arizona – in mid May.

Will this be the final event of this winter-like spring? Or will we see snow again? The record books show that snow isn’t rare in May at these elevations — and snow in June has happened on a number of occasions, too.

We’re all looking forward to spring finally arriving before the calendar says summer.