NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Across the state, New Mexicans are celebrating the start of the monsoon season. After a spring of record-breaking fires, the rain is certainly welcome. How might this year’s rainy season compare to past seasons?
New Mexico is commonly thought of as a dry state. But anyone who’s seen the strong thunderclouds or flash-flooding arroyos knows New Mexico summers can get wet. Officially, the state’s monsoon season runs from June 15 to September 30. During those months, states across the southwest often see increased rain thanks to a weather phenomenon called the “North American Monsoon.”
Driven by summer sunshine, the North American Monsoon happens when the air over the Southwest warms up. This creates a region of high pressure that creates winds that draw moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.
Story Continues Below
Satellite imagery from 2018 shows how monsoons evolve. The images show dry air in orange and wet air in grey. Green and blue are thunderstorms. Imagery from the National Weather Service and NOAA.
Drier winters in New Mexico tend to lead to wetter summers. In 1998, R.W. Higgins, K.C. Mo, and Y. Yao published research revealing the inverse pattern in data from the 1960s to 1990s. So if that holds true for 2022, we could see some strong rains this summer.
Statewide precipitation from December 2021 to March 2022 was relatively low, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In fact, during that time, New Mexico was 1.54 inches of rain drier than average. The implication is that summer rains could be above average.
“It was a late start to winter across New Mexico,” explains Grant Tosterud, KRQE News 13 Chief Meteorologist. “We had the second warmest December on record. Snow was late to the northern mountains, so much so that ski resorts had to delay opening. A more active end to winter in late February and March did bring in more moisture and colder weather across the state.”
The wettest monsoon on record in the Albuquerque area was in 2006, according to data from the National Centers for Environmental Information. That summer, Albuquerque saw 9.42 inches of rain during the monsoon months — that’s more than double the average.
That summer, the rains caused flooding in Hatch, New Mexico after an arroyo failed. But that’s nothing compared to the wettest year on record: 1941.
That year, New Mexico received just over 27 inches of precipitation. The worst of it hit in September 1941. More than 11 inches of rain resulted in 11 deaths in Carlsbad, according to the National Weather Service. Streets in Roswell have washed away.
Floods like that are rare. But minor flooding is common during the monsoon season. And throughout the state, burn scars from wildfires increase the risk of floods.
When a wildfire tears through an area, it robs the ground of vegetation that would normally slow down water and help the soil absorb moisture. Without that plant life, the likelihood of flooding increases. So, the summer monsoon can be both a blessing and a curse.
“The monsoon is crucial to New Mexico. It is a part of our culture,” says Tosterud. “In many areas, these summer storms provide 50% of our average yearly precipitation. Without the monsoon, we would be even more of a desert that we already are. However, monsoon storms do come with their fair share of hazards so it’s important during this time of year to be paying close attention to the weather in your area and know if you are in an area prone to flash flooding.”