Monsoon Season in the Sonoran Desert

For most of the year, the Arizona Sonoran Desert stays quite dry - except for the summer months beginning in late June when the “monsoon” or rainy season begins.  This is a time where cloudscapes become quite dramatic and extraordinarily beautiful.  I have never seen such diversity in shapes and colors anywhere else I’ve lived.  Within a span of a few hours, what began as ordinary stacks of towering cumulus can metamorphize into a complex dance with subtle but rapidly changing shifts in color and shape beyond belief.   I live not far from several U.S. Airforce bases, plus I’m in the direct flight path of jets flying into Sky Harbour International Airport in Phoenix.  So the abundance of contrails only adds to the drama and peculiar shapes populating the sky all at the same time – as if a huge orchestra has been called to accompany these phenomenal dances!  I can’t even begin to put it in words.  So I’ll try to tell the story in the images I capture as best as I can.  

Before we begin, please note that I’m just learning all about the science behind the cloud types and their names. and I’ll include them if I can.  But it’s the ART that’s most important to me.  So whenever I face time constrictions (which is usually always), artistic focus remains the priority.  However, I encourage anyone to speak up and contribute to this effort by sending me such information - especially if it helps to explain why the clouds did what they did.  Some folks like to learn as much as they can about the inside workings of the dance and that is fine.  I want everyone to fall in love with Cloud Kachina as much as I have!    

Finally, I found that the best camera for this, at least for me, is the Canon Powershot - a hybrid camera between a point and shoot and DSLR.  That’s because these cameras include a special “creative” setting that automatically takes around 5 shots in quick succession - each one with a different special effect.  And like a box of chocolates, ya never know what you’re gonna get!  I only keep the ones I really like or that better define the shape of the clouds – and that’s the real secret.  There’s no way to plan or select a specific setting or filter on a DSLR to do this.  It is truly an exercise in synchronistic improvisation yielding stunning results.  So this blog will feature these chronological timelines that aim to show the evolution of the skyscape for a particular day.  My galleries contain photos to which I was particularly drawn to edit and make available on my ArizonaArtware site.   

Let’s get started with a recent example of these dance sessions:  July 13, 2018.  By early afternoon we could see a herd of cumulonimbus approaching as is typical in monsoon season - usually from the southeast.  The cherry on top was that they were serving as a gorgeous backdrop to a flock of pigeons resting on the powerlines:

 Each evening I usually go outside around 7:30 pm because the sun’s gone down behind the hill and that’s when the action begins.  Today the temperature registered at 101  ℉ with 60% humidity so I didn’t stay long.  Immediately I noticed the return of the ”Sky Submarine” I photographed on March 29th!  

Today it was drifting in from the northeast and heading over the hill just like last time.

Meanwhile, in the opposite direction from the sunset, a southeastern anti-crepuscular light show accompanied a funky little dance going on in the south:

Cute little clouds there.  A few minutes later I set my sights on the submarine again, and it looked like it was coming apart at the middle seam or transforming into a gigantic closed mouth:

After five minutes, a full disintegration was in process:

That last photo was a close up of that interesting little group of clouds beneath it.  What’s that all about???  I always wonder about those unexplained (at least to me) strange little details.  

Now for a while, most of the lead dancing was happening on the southeastern and southern fronts which is not ordinary.  The anti-crepuscular activity had increased as seen in these photos:

I’ve got lots of photos of anti-crepuscular rays.  But these examples are different in that the light appears to be more ambient.  This phenomenon must have a name but I don’t know what it is.  

When I eased my camera lens to direct south, this was going on:

That last image is panning ever slightly back to the west via southwest.  Some other weird cloud species had joined the others on the stage, changing the overall mood and composition of the dance.  They are like little spirits in the fashion of “willow the wisp” - wisping about all over the sky creating a happy canvas of brilliant light and color.  A joyful Sonoran Desert sunset is in full swing!

The hill with the strange little “Y Cactus” (Giant Saguaro) is facing directly west.  Most of my sunset pictures are of this view.  As the wisps slowed their wisping, the light shifted, and the regular contrails took center stage.  Finally I noticed what looked like the remains of the sky submarine slipping behind the hill to be forever lost in whatever skyscape was next on its tour.   

The time was 7:50 pm.  The temperature had cooled off by 1 degree, and suddenly a camera emergency demanded that I cut my session short for this evening.  There was plenty of sunset left.   Taking over 200 photos in one session and even some video is not unusual for me.   Which reminds me - please note that all these photos are straight off the camera – unedited and digitally unmanipulated.  As I mentioned, the colored filters are a creative setting feature of the Canon PowerShot camera that I have no control over.  But I love them because it helps me to see features in the clouds I didn’t see before like definition of shape and depth and relationship to other clouds.  After all – it’s a dance.  I feel very privileged and honored to be permitted to take pictures of it.  Finally, my deepest gratitude to Cloud Kachina – Mother Earth - and Father Sky.  For without them – none of this would be possible!   Until next time, happy trails!  

FUTURE BLOG POSTS COMING SOON (also collections):

Kevin-Helmholtz NOT rare in the Sonoran Desert!

Contrail Crazy!

etc.


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