In 2008, the National Weather Service (NWS) changed the definition of the start of the Southwest monsoon from a variable date based on locally measured conditions to a fixed date of June 15 (and a fixed end date of Sept 30). This allowed for a clear delineation of the period of monsoon activity (108 days) and focused NWS’s messaging strategy as it pertains to the expected hazards during that period, which include extreme heat, strong winds, dust storms, flash flooding, lightning, and wildfires (see monsoon safety awareness hub at NWS Tucson).
Prior to 2008, the flexible start date reflected the seasonal progression of the monsoon, with a considerable temporal gradient across the region (Fig. 1).
This gradient is linked to seasonal atmospheric patterns and the establishment of the “monsoon ridge” in the Southwest (Figs. 2a-b, also see sidebar for link to NWS pages). The heating of the complex topography of the western U.S. with the increasing sun angle and contrast with the cooler water of the adjacent Pacific Ocean lead to the establishment of this upper-level ridge of high pressure over the Southwest U.S. (also known as Four Corners High). The flow around this upper-level ridge shifts from a dry southwesterly fetch in May to a moisture-rich southerly-southeasterly fetch in late June/early July (see figures, right).
In Southern Arizona, the monsoon start date was based on the average daily dewpoint temperature. Phoenix and Tucson NWS offices used the criteria of three consecutive days of daily average dewpoint temperature above a threshold (55 degrees in Phoenix, 54 degrees in Tucson) to define the start date of the monsoon. As shown in Figure 3 the dewpoint temperature criterion produced start dates ranging from mid-June to late July over the period of record (1949-2016).
- Figure 1 - International Research Institute for Climate and Society - journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/2007JCLI1762.1
- Figures 2a-2b - Monsoon Definition & Progression - National Weather Service - Tucson - wrh.noaa.gov/twc/monsoon/monsoon.php
- Figure 3 - CLIMAS: Climate Assessment for the Southwest - climas.arizona.edu
- NWS Tucson has an excellent extended explanation of seasonal atmospheric dynamics that drive monsoon progression. - wrh.noaa.gov/twc/monsoon/monsoon_info.php