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.
A previous post displayed photographs of storms and weather that occurred during July of this year’s North American Monsoon. Here are photographs from August (plus the first day of September).
Cumulus and Cumulonimbus
A search for wildflowers and thunderstorms brought me to Rogers Lake west of Flagstaff. It’s a lake only ephemerally during springs with heavy snow runoff. But it makes a grand place for photographs when a wide-open vista is desired. Earlier convective storms were pushing an outflow boundary southward with new convection developing on the boundary.
There was just enough vertical wind shear on this day to allow some storms to briefly exhibit supercell characteristics and deviate to the right —which brought this thunderstorm near the edge of the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Fog and Smoke
Sometimes the unexpected can be magical. When fog forms in Grand Canyon the visitors may be disappointed but there is the potential for amazing photographs.
The North American Monsoon arrived in northern Arizona during the first week of July—which is an average start date. Within just a few days, we quickly transitioned from Extreme Fire Danger to High—and within a week or two—to Moderate.
Summer monsoon season is my second storm chase season—the first is in late spring across the High Plains. Second season is more about lightning, clouds with dramatic scenery, and colors at sunset. This July has been a bit more challenging than other seasons but still successful.
Here are some photographs of storms and storm-related activity during July 2018.
Early stage Cumulonimbus
Cumulonimbus over Hart Prairie.
Outflow boundaries and arcus clouds
This complex of storms was moving westward across Wupatki National Monument. I had originally planned to photograph the system from the Doney Mtn. Picnic Area but the system arrived at that location before I did. So I retreated back to US-89 and the entrance to the Monument. Both of these images are panoramas that span the northeast through south. The San Francisco Peaks can be seen at the far right of both images.
Rainbows (and maybe a tornado?)
As convection approached a rainbow developed and I was busy trying to reset the camera to capture the full bow. Only later, when examing the images, did I notice what might be a vortex bisecting the rainbow. Because I did not see it in real time I cannot say whether there was any rotation. It may just be a random bit of cloud debris.
The best part of the thunderstorm season is trying to capture lightning. It’s more than just getting a photograph of lightning—it’s important to get lightning in an interesting location.
Sometimes I chase storms—other times they chase me. We were mountain biking on Observatory Mesa when this thunderstorm developed and enveloped the San Francisco Peaks. It was definitely time to turn around.
Sunset after the storm
And, of course, sunset after the storms can be pretty amazing,
Reflections in pools of water can produce interesting images. Several days of heavy rain resulted in ponds of water at Crescent Moon Picnic Area.
As is typical, rainfall amounts can vary widely over even just a few miles. Here is a map showing the rain gauge amounts for July on the east side of the San Francisco Peaks southward through Flagstaff and beyond. Amounts range from 2.5 to 14.5 inches.
August continues to bring thunderstorms, lightning, and flooding to northern Arizona.
The North American Monsoon continues across the Southwest bringing thunderstorms almost every day to northern Arizona. Rainfall amounts across much of the state have been well above average with Flagstaff receiving 4.5″ compared to a normal of 2.6″ in the month of July,
Of course, all this storminess brings opportunities for photographing interesting skies, lightning, and sunsets.
I was heading towards the South Rim of Grand Canyon when I decided that Wupatki National Monument might be more interesting. Although there wasn’t much in the way of lightning there was a nice sunset with a thunderstorm in the distance.
Another day brought a great sunset with beams of light illuminating the inner canyon.
I found myself in Sedona a few nights later hoping for lightning at sunset. The lightning was there but clouds to the west blocked the light of the setting sun. This spectacular bolt of anvil lightning traveled horizontally for a great distance before terminating above Cathedral Rock.
Early afternoon cumulus development near Marshall Lake on Anderson Mesa resulted in this small cumulus cloud producing a very photogenic shadow.
And, later that afternoon, we found ourselves at Lower Lake Mary watching another cumulus cloud develop to our east and reflected in the water.
I’ve been trying to capture evening thunderstorms and lightning (image) over Grand Canyon with a crescent moon illuminating the interior the canyon. Not very easy to do. I was able to get the moonlit canyon. And there was lightning but it was over 100 km away and resulted in teeny, tiny bolts in the phots. Well, I’ll just keep trying.
The North American Monsoon is now in full swing across the southwest and Arizona. This brings thundershowers almost every day to northern Arizona along with a chance to photograph lightning.
I have been photographing lightning for a long time with my earliest images using an old manual focus/exposure camera with film. Those were challenging because you had to guess at the exposure (although there were many fine articles online even then on camera settings). There was no way to do a quick check of the exposure to see if it was good. On the other hand, we usually shot in the evening or nighttime hours using long exposures of several seconds or more so you were usually pretty certain whether you had the shutter open at the right moment.
With digital, everything has changed. You can instantly check your image and see whether or not you captured the lightning. There are several lightning triggers on the market that will fire the shutter for you.
Here are some recent images taken in several different locations over the past few weeks.
These were mainly in-cloud flashes so the best option was to leave the shutter open for 10-15 seconds. The longer exposure also allows some stars to appear in the image.