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Robert A. Maddox, Darren M. McCollum, and Kenneth W. Howard


Severe thunderstorms are relatively rare over Arizona and occur most frequently during the summer monsoon period, that is, July, August, and early September. Forecasting in Arizona during the summertime is quite difficult and skill scores are low for both precipitation and severe thunderstorm watches and warnings. In the past, due to the sparse population of Arizona, severe thunderstorms usually impacted few people and were considered relatively insignificant events. However, over the last 20 years, the population of central Arizona has grown dramatically, and the impact of severe thunderstorm and flash flood occurrences has also increased.

Synoptic conditions associated with 27 severe thunderstorm events that occurred in central Arizona during the summer monsoon have been examined systematically and compared to long-term mean July conditions. The period of study covered 1978 to 1990, and cases selected were limited to the high population area of central Arizona. McCollum subjectively identified three distinct large-scale patterns (types I, II, and III) that were associated with the severe thunderstorm events. Significant large-scale departures from mean conditions are used to characterize the Arizona severe weather environment for these three pattern types. Significant pattern anomalies tend to be far removed from the state, typically by 1000 to 2000 km. Thus, even though the summertime environment may seem locally stagnant, a large-scale perspective is required to monitor the day to day evolution of the severe weather environment in the Southwest.

The key factor affecting convective instability at lower elevations, that is, in the deserts of central Arizona, is the amount of low-level moisture present. Severe storm conditions are distinctly more moist and unstable than average from the surface to 700 mb. The standard level charts for the severe weather patterns indicate that the Gulf of California plays an important role in providing a source for this moisture.

The summertime severe thunderstorm environment over the southwest United States is distinctly different than central and eastern United States storm settings, which are well known based upon years of study of substantial numbers of events. In general, the environment in which central Arizona severe monsoon thunderstorms occur is one of weak synoptic-scale flow, significant lower- to midtropospheric moisture, and moderate instability. The nature of subsynoptic circulations that initiate and support severe weather over central Arizona is difficult to infer. However, the existence of repetitive, large-scale patterns suggests that forecasting for the general threat of severe summertime thunderstorms can be improved.

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Darren M. McCollum, Robert A. Maddox, and Kenneth W. Howard


A mesoscale convective system (MCS) developed over central Arizona during the late evening and early morning of 23–24 July 1990 and produced widespread heavy rain, strong winds, and damage to buildings, vehicles, power poles, and trees across northern sections of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Although forecasters from both the National Weather Service and National Severe Storms Laboratory, working together in the 1990 SouthWest Area Monsoon Project (SWAMP), did not expect thunderstorms to develop, severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings were issued for central Arizona between 0300 and 0500 local standard time. This study examines the precursor and supportive environment of the mesoscale convective system, drawing upon routine synoptic data and special observations gathered during SWAMP.

During the evening of 23 July and the early morning of 24 July, low-level southwesterly flow developed and advected moisture present over southwest Arizona across south-central Arizona into the foothills and mountains north and northeast of Phoenix. The increase in moisture produced substantial convective instability in an environment that had been quite stable during the late afternoon. Thunderstorms rapidly developed as this occurred. Outflow from these thunderstorms likely moved downslope into the lower deserts of central Arizona, helping to initiate additional convection. The most persistent convective activity developed within a region of low-level convergence between a pronounced mesoscale outflow boundary and the low-level southwesterly flow. The resultant MCS moved to the south-southeast and weakened just south of Phoenix, while its outflow apparently forced new thunderstorm development north of Tucson.

The operational sounding and surface observation network in Arizona failed to detect important mesoscale circulations and thermodynamic gradients that contributed to the occurrence of the severe weather over central Arizona. In this case, conditions favorable for severe thunderstorms developed rapidly, over a period of a few hours. Large-scale analyses provided little insight into the causes of this particular severe weather event. Higher time and space resolution observational data may be needed to improve forecasts of some severe weather events over the Phoenix area.

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