It was the last thing I expected to see while driving through the Arizona desert—a tornado. YIKES!
A small part of me would like to be a storm chaser and zoom through the plains chasing the twisters. This is very different from minding your own business in a desert and finding the twister chasing you!
My husband and I were crossing Arizona after a business trip. Since it is monsoon season, it was a lot wetter than you would imagine.
Starting around June 15, the monsoon season begins in the Southwestern US. Seasonal winds begin to blow from the south or southeast. They bring thunderstorms and welcome rain.
In summer, the Southwest deserts have monsoon thunderstorms. NOAA
We were driving through a thunderstorm when my husband looked towards the darkest part of the sky and announced, “There’s a tornado!” He had been in the Navy and a couple of colorful terms followed.
Now I entered the debate. “We’re in a desert. You must be seeing virga.” Virga are sheets of rain that stretch down from clouds but don’t reach the ground. They are grey and can look a bit like tornadoes.
My husband is stubborn. “It’s a tornado.” He continued to drive away from the interesting weather phenomenon.
It was definitely spinning. “Maybe it’s a dust devil. They’re common in the desert.” But no, the weather was too wet and the spinning twister was dropping from the cloud rather than rising up. Tornadoes do form in Arizona (they form in every state—even Alaska and Hawaii have had twisters) but desert twisters are rare.
Sometimes virga (rain that doesn’t reach the ground) can look like developing twisters. NOAA
The storm itself seemed puzzled. A spinning rope would drop from the thundercloud, debris would fly and then it would weaken, rise or even dissolve. At one time, there was one tornado on the ground and three others that looked like they were trying to form.
The whole event may have lasted only fifteen minutes, with my sensible husband driving away from the storm and the crazy weather lady studying the distant event with great interest.
It’s nice someone in our family has common sense. But while it lasted, it was fascinating to watch a small and very lost tornado thunder through Arizona.
Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, is a longtime writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac. She is also editor of The Browning World Climate Bulletin and has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.