When you hear the word “monsoon” what comes to mind? Maybe you think of a rain storm, a thunderstorm or even a a series of storms.


What You Need To Know

  • The monsoon in the Southwest U.S. runs from June 15 through Sept. 30

  • Most of the SW receives more than half of its yearly rainfall during the monsoon

  • Hazards of the SW monsoon include dust storms (haboobs), lightning and flash flooding

  • Occasionally, thunderstorms from the SW monsoon move into Southern California

For example, “It rained so much last night. It was like a monsoon came through town!” Well, that's not quite right.

Simply put, it’s a seasonal shift in wind direction that leads to big changes in weather patterns.

In fact, the most significant monsoon is the Southeast Asian monsoon. Summers in SE Asia are extremely wet with a lot of flooding. This is probably where the misconception that I alluded to above comes from.

In North America, we have a monsoon as well. Our monsoon occurs in the Desert Southwest and northern Mexico. In spring, the prevailing wind comes from the north and is dry. In summer, the wind comes from the south and is wet. 

The primary force that causes wind to blow is the pressure gradient force. This just means winds blow from high pressure to low pressure. The difference in temperature is what causes the difference in pressure.

In summer, the Desert Southwest is extremely hot compared to surrounding areas. As hot air rises, low pressure is created over Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. This is called a thermal low. Since the adjacent air is relatively cooler compared to the hot desert air, high pressure is created.  

 

Moisture rich air is drawn into the low pressure from the Gulf of California, Gulf of Mexico and the eastern Pacific. 

Another factor that plays a role in the North American Monsoon is a persistent ridge of high pressure in the upper levels of the atmosphere. In late spring and early summer, this upper level ridge of high pressure is located over central Mexico. Because of its position over Mexico, it cuts off the moisture source into Arizona. 

However, in early July this upper level ridge of high pressure moves into the Southern Plains of the central United States. When this happens, the door is open for moisture to move from the Gulf of California, Gulf of Mexico and eastern Pacific. 

The position of this upper level ridge of high pressure will determine if SoCal gets some summertime rain. When the high pressure expands westward, it nudges the moisture westward. 

 

When the moisture gets pushed to the west over Southern California, we can get showers and thunderstorms in the mountains and deserts of SoCal. On some occasions, the coast and basins get in on the thunderstorms, too! 

In fact, in July of 1984, the National Weather Service reports, "High pressure over the Four Corners and the remnants of Hurricane Genevieve combined to send a surge of moisture into the Southwest."

This surge of moisture formed a huge thunderstorm know as a mesoscale convective system. This system dropped three inches of rain in southern Arizona, caused flash flooding and damage worth $700,000.

Southern California mountains and deserts got in on the rain, too. Alpine (mountain town in San Diego County) received 0.58 inches of rain and Borrego Springs (desert town in San Diego County) received 1.15 inches. Both are top-five daily rainfalls for July.