To me, Flagstaff has three seasons: snow, wind, and monsoon. Of those , the one I love best is monsoon.
Monsoon starts around June 15th and ends near September 30th, with most rain arriving from mid-July to mid-August. Nearly thirty days of pure bliss!
The heat is given a cold shower and temperatures drop to cooler, more pleasant digits. This is the time when I remember why I live here and, what’s more, my garden seems to feel the same way.
The annual plants grovel in the June heat, as if they are holding their breath and obstinately waiting to take off until they get the cooler, humid boost from the rains. When those afternoon showers let loose, the plants put on an even brighter green, happy to accept the slight acidity in the rain and the deep, consistent drink of that lovely, summer nectar.
The word monsoon, derived from the Arabic word "mausim," means “season”, so it is redundant to say, “monsoon season” or essentially, “season season”. Monsoons are annual phenomena of weather.
The earth makes a perfect angle with the sun, resulting in direct light on the northern landmasses, which floods them with warm air. The warm air then contacts the cool, southern air brought in from the ocean. Hot air rises and the cooler air rushes in to fill the spaces vacated, causing a collision of temperatures in the middle.
Because of this, it is hard to predict the precise severity, timing and duration of each season. In India, most agricultural patterns center around trying to predict monsoons accurately, else the country can expect major flooding or drought, and either may result in catastrophic crop and life loss.
If the storms are ideal, fields flourish before dry conditions return. Farmers there both dread and look forward to the coming of the summer rains because most do not have other means of irrigation. Our monsoons are nothing compared to theirs, but if a person has experienced a monsoon haboob in Southern Arizona, they can somewhat imagine the damaging power of monsoon storms, if only at a smaller scale.
Even my yearly battle with hail pales in comparison. (As a frame of reference, on July 26th, 2005, Mumbai received over thirty-nine inches of rain. That is in one day, and we have not even broached the dangers of mudslides. Millions of people have faced devasting losses this year in much of South Asia as well.)
Living beneath a mountain helps our chances of receiving a proper monsoon. Just as the Himalayas impact rainfall in Southeast Asian valleys below, the San Francisco Peaks have a similar influence in their own way. The peaks accumulate the storm clouds then downpours move from one side of the mountain before dropping into the other and eventually dispersing as they move farther away. Scientists call it the Rain Shadow Effect. Prevailing winds carry warm, moist air over the nearest side of the mountain where it condenses and cools, then as the clouds move down the other side of the mountain, the dry air advances, causing an area of less precipitation.
Even in the rain shadow, however, Northern Arizona receives more precipitation than one would expect this far north of coastal warm air and cool air collisions. This is due to our peaks acting as a sort of trap for the summer rains, making the monsoon phenomenon in Northern Arizona even more a miracle.
It is a miracle I gladly accept, threats of hail and all. It is one my plants accept, too, almost as if they are hardwired to hope for rain over the watering can. So far this year the monsoon rains have been weak at best, absent at worst, but the waiting has made me appreciate them more.
It is the ultimate hold out for me, the hope for a perfect season in summer: cool, humid afternoons and my green plants covered in raindrops, their dreams of growing as big as the peaks themselves not realized but certainly closer.
Jackee Alston is the new co-editor of Gardening Etc., a Coconino Master Gardener and has been growing food in Flagstaff for 14 years.
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