Thursday, July 14, 2011

So Close, and Yet...

or Monsoon Season, New Mexico Style

It was a dark and stormy ni—well, no, it's really been late afternoon when the clouds have moved in.  Come to think of it, it hasn't gotten all that dark, even with the cloud cover—if you wanted to, you could still wear sunglasses in the shade and see just fine.  Stormy?  Well, maybe in a way, if you're not picky about definitions:  a bit of a cooling breeze, enough humidity that you could actually feel the air (weird!), and the sight of a few thunderheads.  But nothing that qualified as an actual storm.  Not in the sense of actual weather.

A dark and stormy night A perfectly lovely evening, gosh darn it.

Every afternoon for the past couple of weeks, the monsoon clouds have built up over Albuquerque.  We look forward to them all through the blistering heat of June, and early every July the newspaper sports a giant, front-page headline like:

Is Monsoon Season Here? 

According to those in the know, for 2011, it is.  For the next couple of months, the prevailing winds will change direction and start pulling moist air up from the Gulfs of Mexico and California.  As the moisture heats up over the warm earth it will rise; as it cools in the higher air it will condense to fall again as rain.  (It is hardly the awe-inspiring monsoon of the Indian subcontinent, but the wind pattern works the same way.)  Across the west and southwest, we rely on these two months for 40% of our annual moisture, which in Albuquerque should give us a little over three inches.  Since our total for the year so far is still 0.19" (5mm) of rain, we're ready for this.

We want some dark and stormy nights.

But clouds in the southwest don't come in massive storm fronts, even during monsoon season.  No giant "unicloud," as my oldest nephew calls it, stakes out the sky from one horizon to the other and sets up camp for the week, pouring out rain all the while.  Instead the clouds here are separate little puffballs with vague herding instincts.  If the cloud directly over you decides to drop its rain just at that moment, you will get rain.  Otherwise, maybe your neighbor three houses down will.  The next cloud will probably have different ideas.  So will the next one.

The herding instincts of clouds, illustrated.

Even without rain, of course, the season is a relief.  The higher humidity (sometimes soaring to 50%) has been a boon to weary firefighters around the state; the clouds have kept afternoon temperatures a few degrees cooler.  We can water gardens and landscaping a little less, because the water doesn't evaporate quite as quickly.  But still.  We want some rain.

Some parts of the state have received it—Santa Fe, Roswell, Socorro.  Even some parts of town have seen rainfall, especially closer to the foothills.  Here in the valley, though, we've had a couple of wickedly flirtatious showers, and that's been it.  They've been enough to give the air an almost desperate sweetness—a freshness so rare and intense that it hurts.  They've lasted long enough to make the patio furniture too wet to sit on for a few minutes, but not enough to send any water tumbling out of the canales into the rain barrel below, or to dampen more than the surface of the earth.  Not enough to measure.

In the last few days I've stood on the patio and watched the anvils on thunderheads fraying in the icy upper atmosphere.  I've seen the Sandias disappear behind a black sheet of rain.  I've gazed at mango- and raspberry-colored sunsets breaking through the (many) gaps in the clouds.  It's all been dramatic and beautiful, maybe even verging on the sublime. 

But what I'd really like to a puddle.


  1. Stacy, I'm remembering a Gettysburg College graduation a few years ago (outdoors) when it just poured, and everyone was soaking wet and miserable. Well, almost everyone. When Sandra Day O'Connor got up to give the commencement address, she smiled broadly and said, "I'm from the desert; we're always happy to see rain." I hope you get a good soaking soon. (I'm trying to process 3" in a year; it's not unheard of here to get 3" in an hour.) -Jean

  2. No indeed. You can't beat a good puddle. I spent some time in Sri Lanka during monsoon season. Early evening (round about gin fizz time - we'd discovered an excellent bar!) for about an hour the rain would fall with an almighty roar and wash all clean, ready for the next day. Remarkable and very welcome. Beautiful photos, Stacy.


  3. How insightful of you to see the magic in nature's method and madness! Good puddling!

  4. Stacy - I'm sure it will rain for you soon. That bottom cloud looks really dense, like it's just waiting to have the rain wrung out of it.

  5. Hmm we know that, rain pattering on the roof, go outside to dance in the rain, and feel silly, because it doesn't FEEL wet, oh, it stopped before it started. With you, we hope for more rain in July.

  6. I was wondering if you had received any of the rain. Hubby follows the Santa Fe weather daily (he is dying to move out there but I'm still to sick). He has it on his iphone. So I was wondering about ABQ and your lovely garden.

  7. Great cloud photos. .19 inch of rain this year! Wow - talk about a gardening challenge. A beautifully written post. I can almost feel the thirst for rain and imagine myself living in your climate ... still so exotic to me!

  8. Anvil is the perfect word for some thunderheads I have known too. Wonderful large sky you have to watch the world turning round! I hope you get your rain soon Stacy!! I love the herding instinct of clouds too! Fabulous! I have often thought of parades floating by but never the herd.

  9. Beautiful sky shots Stacy. Here is hoping you get the rain you want and need.

  10. Love the cloud pictures! I hope you get some relief and rain soon too.

  11. Jean, what a great story! The whole attitude toward rain and clouds really is more enthusiastic out here. I wasn't clear enough, though--3" would be about 40% of our annual rainfall of 8". Still not impressive, but better...

    Dave, that sounds like a wonderful experience all the way around. What convenient timing for a rainstorm, too! I lived in Florida for a while where the summer thunderstorms are pretty impressive but still can't imagine what a real, tropical monsoon rain like that must be like.

    TSB and b-a-g, thanks--I hope we do see some rain from one of those clouds pretty soon. A local columnist was writing about how the whole mood of a place gets more testy and ready to spit fireworks when you haven't had enough rain. At first I thought he was full of beans, but I'm beginning to see his point...

  12. Diana, that's pretty much it in a nutshell. :) I've been thinking about your nephew--he can't be having an easy time of it this summer.

    Baffled, I actually moved out here partly because of family connections but also because the dryness is sooooo much easier on fibromyalgia (at least for me). (Maybe you shouldn't let your hubby know that bit just yet...) I'm trying not to begrudge the rain to Santa Fe, with mixed success.

    Sheila, thank you. Fortunately, we don't have watering bans here just yet, so gardening is still possible. (Just not all that responsible...)

  13. Carol, usually when a thunderhead gets to that anvil stage, someone somewhere is going to get a lot of rain, but this year seems to be an exception... I've always loved the hugeness of western skies and actually feel mildly claustrophobic in places with more trees. I love your image of the parade, with all its life and action and forward motion!

    Elaine and Donna and Bumble Lush, thank you. And B.L., thanks for visiting!

  14. Thanks to your post, the next time there is a storm, I will think of the thunder as the lowing of herds of clouds :D

  15. klbrowser--ha! Thanks for that laugh. :) Thanks to you, now I will, too!