With four consecutive years of drought across New Mexico and the greater Southwest, farmers and ranchers in the Land of Enchantment are expressing hope this week as the first of typical monsoon rains have filtered into the state, in some cases bringing substantial seasonal moisture.
The annual monsoon season in New Mexico is actually a misnomer. Strong low level moisture flux into the atmosphere each mid to late summer season caused by subtle changes of water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, bring the annual rains to the high deserts and mountainous areas of New Mexico.
Each year the amount of rain and tumultuous weather varies according to those variable water temperatures and the direction and intensity of prevailing winds. In a year when substantial moisture is pumped into the state from the southeast across Texas and the southwest across northern Mexico and Arizona, heavy to extremely heavy thunderstorms can develop with heavy rainfalls possible, especially in the mountains. But in a good year, the rains can send substantial showers into the lower desert regions as well.
By contrast, when conditions fail to provide the moisture but the winds still kick up across the state, it can cause a drying effect on an already parched landscape resulting in serious dust storms and an increased risk of destructive wildfires, adding danger and misery to an already dry year.
But hope is lifting this week as the first 'monsoonal' rains of the year prompted NOAA severe weather warnings to large areas across the state. The first significant monsoon moisture surge worked into the state Tuesday (July 1) and set the stage for several days of scattered to numerous showers and thunderstorms.
The National Weather Service in Albuquerque forecasts locally heavy rainfall will shift from rain-parched Eastern New Mexico early in the week to central parts of the state and finally into western regions by the Fourth of July holiday.
Forecasters say the storms will bring relief from the summer heat and will provide ample cloud cover to wide areas across the state, bringing beneficial rains to farmers and ranchers over a large area.
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New Mexico and other areas across the Southwest U.S. are affected by the North American Monsoon System every summer, and the “monsoon season” is designated as the period lasting from June 15th through September 30th. With the onset of the monsoon, New Mexico is typically impacted by a variety of weather hazards that can often put the population at risk for serious injury or death, including farmers and ranchers in rural areas and others who work outdoors. Thunderstorm frequency increases during this period, bringing a number of potential weather hazards.
Despite the desert environment of the Land of Enchantment, statistics indicate that significant weather events associated with the monsoon are responsible for property damage, injuries and fatalities across the state every single year. Since 2011, monsoon related events were responsible for at least five fatalities in New Mexico.
The primary concerns include flash flooding, especially in low-lying areas where rains are sparse and unexpected. NWS officials say rain that falls in the mountains, for example, can impact lower areas many miles away in a short period of time.
Also of concern are the dangers associated with lightning strikes. New Mexico is typically listed at the top or in the top five states where the most number of deaths per capita by lightning strikes occur. Forecasters warn farmers and ranchers and others who work outdoors that lightning can strike from a cloud as far as 10 to 15 miles away without warning. Individuals in higher elevations, especially in mountainous regions, are more at risk from lightning.
Another development associated with monsoon season is a weather phenomenon known as a downburst, or a microburst, when winds aloft begin forming an 'eddy' in low clouds associated with a thunderstorm, often resulting in exceptionally strong down bursts of high winds in a very centralized location.
Unsuspecting motorists or farmers in the field or on farm equipment can be caught by these freak weather developments, which can actually blow down structures and flip vehicles with little or no advance warning.
New Mexico storm spotter and weather photographer Leah Robertson says flash floods and downbursts associated with monsoonal thunderstorms are the two weather developments most likely to cause property damage in New Mexico.
"A downburst is a column of non-circulating sinking air in a thunderstorm that after hitting ground level, spreads out in all directions and is capable of producing damaging straight-line winds of over 100 mile-per-hour," she said.
These winds can often produce damages similar to what occurs in a tornado, but generally without the benefit of advanced warning.
While extreme weather can present a number of risks, farmers and ranchers say they consider the monsoon season a welcome sign because of the substantial chances of beneficial rains that come with it.
This week those welcome rains are falling, at least across large areas of the state.