The non-Monsoon of 2019

Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.

It’s been an unusual monsoon season across Arizona this year. After both a wet winter and wet spring—with above normal precipitation amounts all the way into the month of May—things went dry. The North American Monsoon started late this year with the first significant rainfall not arriving until the second half of July. This was unfortunate as the dryness partially contributed to a very damaging wildfire (Museum Fire) burning across portions of the San Francisco Peaks.

Just a few days later, the rains finally arrived. And, then, they stopped again. And it has been that way much of this monsoon season. A few days of rain, then a week or more of dry weather. A normal pattern would have rain falling perhaps four days out of seven for a two-month period. Folks around here have dubbed this monsoon the “nonsoon”.

And, of course, with the lack of moisture and thunderstorms opportunities for photographing storms, heavy rain, lightning, and sunsets has been a challenge. But it only takes one great photograph to make it a successful season. I’m still trying to get that photograph.

Here are some of the more interesting photographs from this “nonsoon monsoon” season.

The Museum Fire burns in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
The Museum Fire burns in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
A thunderstorm develops above the San Francisco Peaks as seen from the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
A thunderstorm develops above the San Francisco Peaks as seen from the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection develops over the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection develops over the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection is reflected in the waters of Marshall Lake.
Convection is reflected in the waters of Marshall Lake.
A growing thunderstorm is reflected in Marshall Lake.
A growing thunderstorm is reflected in Marshall Lake.
The sun sets over Wupatki National Monument.
The sun sets over Wupatki National Monument.
Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.
Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind Upper Lake Mary.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind Upper Lake Mary.
Lightning on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Lightning on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Twilight lightning in Wupatki National Monument.
Twilight lightning in Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning strikes near the confluence of Grand Canyon and Little Colorado River.
Lightning strikes near the confluence of Grand Canyon and Little Colorado River.

Lightning-caused Wildfires

And so it begins. The North American Monsoon has begun with many thunderstorms but not much rain. As a result, lightning-sparked wildfires are a possibility.

Just by chance, I was heading out towards Mormon Lake this morning to capture images of the building thunderstorms over the San Francisco Peaks. I had noticed that the early buildups had some interesting structure—a combination of convective vertical growth as well as some laminar wave clouds.

As I drove towards Upper Lake Mary I saw a small plume of smoke from a wildfire. Moments later, I spotted a helicopter dropping water on the fire.

Fortunately, the fire was a very short distance from the lake allowing multiple passes in quick succession.

Helicopter lifting water bucket from Lake Mary.
Helicopter lifting water bucket from Lake Mary.
Helicopter approaching Lake Mary to refill bucket.
Helicopter approaching Lake Mary to refill bucket.

The recent increase in moisture and a slight cooling of temperatures that we’ve experienced over the past few days will result in good chances of quickly containing this wildfire.

Ligntning map for 07 July 2018.
Ligntning map for 07 July 2018.

The lightning map for 07 July 2018 shows plenty of lightning across the higher terrain—so it’s likely this fire was caused by lightning.

Bright Objects in the Night Sky—May 2018

The past two weeks have offered several opportunities for photographing the moon in the evening sky. Beginning on May 16, we had a crescent Moon with just 3.7% of the disk illuminated by the sun. During the months of May, June, and July, the thin crescent Moon lines up with the long axis of Upper Lake Mary. This results in nice reflections of the Moon on the waters of the lake—but only if there is little or no wind. The first two images were taken in the early evening with some reflections over portions of the lake. The image also shows the unlit part of the crescent Moon illuminated with Earthshine, also known as Da Vinci Glow. Yes, that Leonardo Da Vinci. Quite an amazing bit of scientific deduction on his part.

A thin crescent Moon above Lake Mary.
A thin crescent Moon above Lake Mary.
Crescent Moon with reflections on Lake Mary.
Crescent Moon with reflections on Lake Mary.

The following evening the Moon was located near the planet Venus. Capturing both of these objects and getting reflections in the water was a bit more difficult as they were higher in the sky.

Moon and Venus above Lake Mary.
Moon and Venus above Lake Mary.

Next up was the day-before-the-full-Moon in Sedona. Using The Photographers Ephemeris it’s not very difficult to determine at what time and in which location to find the Moon rising between the spires of Cathedral Rock. I’ve done this shot before but never get tired of traveling to Sedona to see it happen again. Not surprisingly, I often run into other photographers and friends with the same idea so it becomes a bit of a social gathering as well.

Moonrise above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
Moonrise above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
Moonrise above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
Moonrise above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
A couple watches the Moon rise from Cathedral Rock.
A couple watches the Moon rise from Cathedral Rock.

The first image shows the Moon having just risen into the left gap. The second image is a crop and closeup of the Moon. The third was taken several minutes later after adjusting my position a bit to capture the Moon in the middle gap. A couple can be seen in silhouette gazing at the rising Moon.

The International Space Station cross the sky.
The International Space Station cross the sky.
The ISS and OA-9 Cygnus move across the sky.
The ISS and OA-9 Cygnus move across the sky.

Finally, there was a transit of the International Space Station (ISS) and the resupply ship OA-9 Cygnus—both moving near the North Star. The transit is a 5-minute sequence of images while the star trails is a 30-minute sequence. The second image shows the bright ISS with the faint OA-9 Cygnus following behind. A day later, the OA-9 docked with the ISS.

Lightning and the end of the Monsoon Season

The monsoon season officially ends in Arizona on September 30 but convective activity ended a week or two ago. But the monsoon provided a great “end-of-season” show.

Lightning near Mormon Mt. and reflected in Lake Mary.
Lightning near Mormon Mt. and reflected in Lake Mary.

Several clusters of thunderstorms were moving from the lower elevations up onto the Mogollon Rim on the evening of September 13. I haven’t been able to get any good shots of lighting reflected in water in recent years so I decided to try again—this time along the shores of upper Lake Mary.

I was not disappointed.

Lightning near Mormon Mt. and reflected in Lake Mary.
Lightning near Mormon Mt. and reflected in Lake Mary.

The early storms were distant to the west resulting in images with only small flashes. Another cluster of storms was to the southwest—moving to the northeast. Several flashes produced dramatic branches out the top of the storm and into the starry sky.

Lightning near Mormon Mt. and reflected in Lake Mary.
Lightning near Mormon Mt. and reflected in Lake Mary.

The storms were moving directly towards me and I had to quit when they got too close. My comfort zone on these storms was about 12 miles. Close enough.

Mountain Man Triathlon

Sometimes my photographic plans just have to be thrown out the window and Plan B put into place. That’s what happened recently.

I’ve been renting and testing a telephoto lens (Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR) for a week. After getting shut out by clouds three nights in a row trying to get moon rise images I decided to photograph water birds at sunrise along the shores of Lake Mary.

I should have checked the weekend event calendar. The Mountain Man Triathlon event was taking place at the lake. So, instead of shooting birds, I chose to shoot swimmers and bikers (I skipped the runners).

Having not given a lot of thought to shooting athletes, I found myself just winging it with no obvious good locations or setup. Well, that’s what happens when you fall back to Plan B but didn’t actually have a Plan B.

It turns out this lens is a bit slow on the auto-focus speed. That means many of the photos missed sharp focus as the riders were moving fast. Swimmers? Not a problem.

Here are some images of swimmers and bikers from the Mountain Man Triathlon held in Lake Mary near Flagstaff on July 9, 2017.

Men's Olympic swim.
Men’s Olympic swim.
Another wave of swimmers in the water.
Another wave of swimmers in the water.
Waiting for the start.
Waiting for the start.

Triathlon family.
Triathlon family.