Monsoon brings variable weather to Arizona

Monsoon brings variable weather to Arizona

The Arizona monsoon brings dust, rain, winds, floods, and more. Images from DEMA and NWS/NOAA

Arizona has its share of exciting weather. The busiest season for Arizonians is usually summer, when the monsoon hits. Monsoonal days are characterized by extreme heat and intense moisture, creating high humidity; the perfect recipe for thunderstorms that produce the kind of heavy rain, high winds and lightning that can cause flash flooding and dust storms, and spark wildfires.


According to the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Warning Coordination Meteorologist, Ken Waters, every monsoon is dramatically different from the previous one, making it is hard to predict what will happen from one year to the next.


“Predicting monsoon activity can be challenging. One possible clue that we do see for 2015 is some indication that the monsoon season may have a slight delay in its onset due to the current strengthening of the El Nino pattern,” Waters said. “One thing we know for sure: there will be a monsoon in Arizona as there is every year, and it will consist of variable patterns of increased activity (monsoon surges) as well as periods of relative calmness when moisture levels back off from their highs.”


Waters encourages people to understand the dangers surrounding the monsoon in order to prepare and respond accordingly.  


“Stay aware of weather updates by monitoring media, including and National Weather Service on a NOAA weather radio and online at,” said Waters. “Also, take cell phone alerts (Wireless Emergency Alerts) seriously. These are targeted alerts that are issued for only significant weather hazards in Arizona such as dust storms and flash flooding. These alerts will follow you as you travel. So you should only receive them if you are in the vicinity of hazardous weather.”


The Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) encourages Arizonians to plan ahead and prepare for hazardous weather. 


“While the monsoon brings cooling rains, we need to be aware of its dangers and prepare for it,” said Wendy Smith-Reeve, DEMA’s Deputy Director. “Severe monsoonal weather has the potential to cause serious personal injury and property damage.”


Create a family evacuation plan that identifies family meeting places in and out of the neighborhood, and a family communication plan that includes an out-of-town contact, along with important numbers. Practice the plan.


Prepare an emergency supplies kit with enough nonperishable food and potable water to sustain the family (including pets) for at least three days. Include a first aid kit, radio, flashlight and batteries, along with necessary personal items.


A serious monsoon hazard is dust storms. Monsoon thunderstorms can produce strong winds, creating large clouds of dust capable of reducing visibility to near zero in seconds. The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) has been a lead agency in educating drivers about the dangers associated with dust storms. ADOT has produced several public service announcements and videos that promote the Pull Aside – Stay Alive message.


 “A lot of people associate dust storms with the annual monsoon, but we know they can occur at any time of the year,” said Doug Nintzel, ADOT Public Information Officer. “That’s one message that we’re getting out there. There’s no doubt that Monsoon Awareness Week remains a major focal point in our multi-agency public education efforts.”


When a National Weather Service forecast or alert about blowing dust or dust storms is issued, ADOT activates its overhead message boards, including several along I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. ADOT crews also are prepared to operate portable message boards along I-10 with caution messages about blowing dust, to help encourage drivers make smart decisions while driving.


Heavy monsoon rains can trigger flash floods across Arizona. Flash floods can develop within minutes and bring a damaging wall of water and debris into a community that is normally dry. Flash floods endanger lives, destroy property and are powerful enough to move vehicles. 


In the event of a flash flood it’s important to listen to the television or a radio for current information. Do not walk through moving water or drive on a flooded road. Six inches of water can sweep a person off their feet. Eighteen inches of water can carry away a vehicle.


It’s important to understand the terms used to identify flood hazards. The NWS issues a flash flood watch when flash flooding is possible. In a watch, you should turn to the radio or television for current information.  A flash flood warning means a flash flood is occurring, and that you should seek higher ground immediately.


The Arizona Department of Insurance (ADOI) reminds Arizonans to learn their flood risk at FloodSmart and talk to their insurance provider about flood insurance. 


“The rain events Arizona experiences each monsoon season come with a gentle reminder to all Arizona residential property owners and renters to check your insurance policies to see if you have enough insurance coverage for normal storm events, like wind and rain,” Yvonne Hunter, ADOI’s Assistant Director of Consumer Affairs said. “Property owners and renters will need to purchase additional insurance because standard property insurance policies do not cover flood events. Few residents think of fire and flood events as being related. If there is a fire in your area, you should definitely contact your insurance company to confirm whether you may want or need flood insurance.”


Lightning sparks can also cause wildfires. The strong monsoonal winds can cause fire to spread rapidly. According to the Southwest Coordination Center, lightning sparked 515 wildfires in 2014, burning 149,959 acres. Live Firewise by preparing your home and the area around it for fire season.


The Arizona Interagency Wildfire Prevention website has helpful prevention tips, as well as fire restriction information and other fire news.


Be aware of the potential dangers of the monsoon near your home and while you travel across the state. Check fire restrictions before travelling to national forests and campgrounds. Be aware of other potential hazards like flash flooding in such places as Oak Creek Canyon.


“Although the Slide Fire burn area has recovered significantly over the past year, an elevated risk of flash flooding and debris flows still exists in Oak Creek Canyon,” said Robert Rowley, Coconino County’s Emergency Management Director. “If you plan on recreating in Oak Creek Canyon this summer, be aware of rapidly changing weather conditions.”


“If you hear the sirens go off, that means a Flash Flood Warning has been issued. Get to a designated safety point or seek high ground immediately,” he warns.



The Arizona Emergency Information Network (AzEIN) has more tips on preparing for hazards associated with monsoon storms. AzEIN also posts emergency updates about current hazards.