ARIZONA — The state may wind up this year with the driest monsoon on record, as wildfires continue to flare and smolder across the state.
Most of Arizona typically gets half of its annual rainfall during the three-month monsoon season, which officially runs from June 15 to Sept. 30. But this year most of the state had gotten less than half a normal monsoon’s worth of rainfall.
After the first wet winter in years, the monsoon fizzle hasn’t yielded disaster. However, climate researchers from the University of Arizona and elsewhere warn that the monsoon will become increasingly erratic in coming years – rampaging and sputtering depending on the fitful gyrations of the jet stream as the planet warms.
This year, Flagstaff’s gotten two inches when it normally gets more than four inches. Phoenix has gotten about a third of an inch while it normally gets 1.6 inches, Tucson has gotten 2.2 inches compared to the normal 3.6 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
As of Aug. 13, the monsoon has delivered less rain than any year since the start of record keeping in 1899.
Moreover, the forecast for the next week or two predicts more record temperatures than rainfall.
As a result, wildfires have sputtered and flared, including a fast-moving brushfire recently that shut down Interstate 17 near Sunset Point, between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Inciweb lists at least 14 active wildfires in Arizona. Fortunately, only a few of them like the Museum Fire near Flagstaff and the Woodbury Fire in the Superstitions forced evacuations and briefly threatened structures. The first damp dash of the monsoon helped firefighters get these fires under control.
Other fires near the Grand Canyon and in the White Mountains were muffled by the lingering effects of a wet winter and brief spasms of the monsoon season. Crews established perimeters and let the low-intensity fires contribute to desperately needed forest thinning and restoration efforts.
But in the past several weeks, the monsoon has dried up, replaced by record temperatures across the state. Phoenix hit 114 degrees twice recently, setting all-time records for the date.
The monsoon connects Arizona to planetary climate cycles. The shifts in the high-altitude river of air dubbed the “jet stream” normally bring storms loaded with tropical moisture boiling out of the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico and across Arizona and New Mexico. Those storms deliver half of the annual rainfall in the desert regions and 30 or 40 percent of the rainfall to the White Mountains and Rim Country.
Show Low normally gets about 18 inches annually, with two inches in August and an inch each month from September through February.
Normally, when the surface water in the Eastern Pacific warms up — an El Niño — Arizona has a wet year. Mostly, that means more snow in the White Mountains, but sometimes a more active monsoon as well. This year, El Niño conditions did produce the first “normal” winter snowpack in years, but then sea surface temperatures cooled, perhaps contributing to the disappointing monsoon. The ebbing of El Niño conditions could produce a dry winter to follow our almost non-exisistent monsoon.
Normally, the seasonal warming over the tropics drives increased evaporation from the ocean and the buildup of a high-pressure ridge over Mexico in June. Arizona’s fire season peaks at this point, with an almost rainless May and June combines with the highest temperatures of the year.
This high pressure ridge in July begins to shift to the Southern Plains and Southern Rocky Mountains. This opens the door to inrushing tropical storms, producing monsoon storms not only in the American Southwest but in India as well. Normally, this produces fitful storms, including localized deluges and wet weeks followed by dry weeks.
The monsoon varies dramatically from one year to the next. For instance, in 2013 Flagstaff got 17 inches of rain during the monsoon months and Prescott got 6 inches. But in 2014, Flagstaff got 12 inches and Prescott 18, according to National Weather Service on the Arizona monsoon patterns.
Despite those variations, the monsoon remains critical to filling reservoirs and sustaining agriculture across much of the state. The monsoon also plays a key role in the length and intensity of the fire season. Finally, the summer rains largely account for the dramatic differences in vegetation between the saguaro-graced Sonoran desert and the creosote-dominated deserts of the Mojave in California.
But when it comes to the monsoon pattern in Arizona, abnormal may prove to be the new normal, according to an array of climate studies and projections.
The average temperatures in Arizona have warmed by 2 degrees in the past 50 years, about double the global average, according to a climate assessment issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The warming trend could reflect natural variations, but is likely influenced by the 40 percent increase in heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of human activities since the 1700s. The surface waters of the ocean have warmed by about 1 degree in the past 80 years, affecting weather all over the globe.
The acreage burned by wildfires in the Southwest each year has roughly tripled in the past 50 years, which reflects both the effect of the average warming and the overgrown condition of the forest after a century of fire suppression. The average snowpack in the state has also decreased by an average of 40 percent, according to the climate assessment – although snowfall still varies tremendously from one year to the next.
The shift has proved especially painful for the vast stretch of Northern Arizona centered on the Navajo Reservation, which has remained locked in drought even in years when the rest of the state gets relief. As one example, the Great Falls Dune Field (sand dune) on the Navajo Nation has advanced by a mile in the last 60 years, covering homes, roads and grazing areas. Some 40 percent of the people on the Navajo Reservation live in areas threatened by “extreme heat” issues and 30 percent of the population have neither public sewer or public water systems.
However, intensely localized systems like the monsoon remain notoriously difficult to predict. Some researchers running projected temperature increases through multiple climate models predict the Arizona monsoon could melt away in coming decades. Other projects suggest the pattern may simply become more violent and unreliable – with monsoon fizzles alternating with epic rainfall and destructive flooding.
So the forecast for 2019 calls for an historically dry monsoon season, with more hot and dry to come in the next several weeks.
And long range?
Buckle your seat belt.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at email@example.com
NAVAJO & APACHE COUNTIES — Rural Arizona counties are preparing for the apocalypse.
Well – providing they get the grant.
To be specific, Navajo County along with Apache and Gila counties are all lining up for state and federal money to plan a comprehensive response for the kind of pandemic that killed 50 million people after World War I, as a virulent strain of the flu drifted across the world.
The Navajo County Board of Supervisors at its last meeting approved the application for a $250,000 grant from the State Department of Health Services and the federal Centers for Disease Control to establish a system to rapidly distribute antibiotics, vaccines and newly developed drugs in the event a pandemic rips through Arizona. The grant application will come before every county in the state in the next several months, courtesy of the Arizona Bureau of Public Health and Emergency Preparedness.
It sounds like science fiction spawned by a dark mind, but public health experts warn that the nation remains woefully unprepared for fast-spreading, potentially incurable diseases. A recent case in point is Ebola, now once again rippling through the Congo. The fast-spreading viral disease has a 65 percent mortality rate. The Congo has had 10 outbreaks in the past 40 years, with the most recent spread killing 1,800 people.
Most Americans think of the threat of such pandemics as a Third World problem, held at bay here by modern sanitation and healthcare systems.
However, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been battling AIDS, malaria and other diseases for more than a decade through the world’s largest charity. At a conference, he recently warned that the world remains woefully unprepared for deadly viruses and bacteria incubated by overcrowding, poor sanitation, overuse of antibiotics and global travel patterns.
Medical researchers have developed only a handful of effective vaccines against viral diseases. Tragically, many poor countries can’t afford the vaccinations and in many rich countries exaggerated fears of vaccine side-effects have left much of the world vulnerable to even well-known viral disease like measles.
The Navajo County Board of Supervisors at its last meeting approved the development of a Public Health Emergency Preparedness program, to train county workers to receive, distribute and stockpile critical items – like vaccines, antibiotics and other medications needed to cope with a pandemic or “outbreak event.”
The program would also help local hospitals to set up protocalls and systems to handle the huge number of potentially infectious patients such an outbreak could generate.
Each county will have to provide a detailed budget to qualify for the state and federal support. The county will establish a point-person in the event of such a medical emergency, train workers to handle the crisis and pull together local coalitions of healthcare workers and public safety officials.
The state has set up four regions to coordinate responses. Navajo and Apache counties are in the Northern region, along with Coconino and Yavapai counties as well as the Hopi, Kaibab-Paiute and Navajo reservations. Gila County’s in the Central Region, along with Maricopa and Pinal counties and the Gila River, San Carlos Apache, White Mountain Apache and Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribes and communities.
Each county and tribe can apply for state and federal money to pull together its public health emergency plan.
Rural counties have lower population densities, which reduces the speed with which a pandemic can spread. However, rural areas in Arizona also have less access to healthcare – including vaccines. One survey showed only 51 percent of people living in rural America have job-based healthcare coverage, compared to 57 percent in urban areas. The Affordable Care Act drove down the percentage of Americans without health coverage to the lowest levels in decades, but rural areas still lagged. About 30 percent of rural residents get their healthcare covered through the Arizona Affordable Health Care System (AHCCCS), but the state-run healthcare system for low income workers has far fewer healthcare clinics and facilities in rural areas.
Vaccination rates lag even for established diseases easily preventable with safe vaccines. It requires a 95 percent vaccination rate to acquire “herd immunity” from common viruses like measles, mumps and rubella. But statewide, the vaccination rate has fallen to 93 percent, according to the state department of health resources.
Only about 40 percent of the state’s kindergarten students have a vaccination rate high enough to prevent the spread of a measles outbreak – much less still-incurable diseases like Ebola or the kind of flu strain that proved so lethal worldwide in 1918.
The vaccination rate by county for kindergartners in 2019 stood at 92 percent in Apache County and 93 percent in both Gila and Navajo counties, according to the State Department of Health Resources. All three counties fall below the 95 percent threshold for “herd immunity,” which dramatically slows the spread of a virus through the population.
The potential for lethal damage from a new viral threat like AIDS, Ebola or a version of the 1918 flu virus is potentially even greater, since such a virus would spread quickly without an effective vaccine and only limited drug options for treatment. That’s why the state is scrambling to get each county to set up an emergency response system in case such a virus does get loose.
TAYLOR — Biting into an ear of Taylor sweet corn is like biting into a really good apple.
Both are sweet and full of juice.
That is one of the things that makes the annual sweet corn festival so much fun and so popular far and wide.
It is put on by the town and the Snowflake-Taylor Chamber of Commerce.
Starting this weekend, Saturday, Aug. 31, the 2019 Taylor Sweet Corn Festival celebrates the town’s long time history of growing some of the best corn around.
The difference between regular corn and Taylor sweet corn is that most ears of corn are not typically eaten raw. Taylor sweet corn is great raw or cooked.
One of the other things that makes the Sweet Corn Festival so great is the genuine hometown atmosphere Taylor exudes. Going through town a person will see many roadside stands with happy, genuinely friendly people selling sweet corn and other crafts and whatnot. It is truly a fun experience for all.
People start setting up their roadside stands a day or two before the festival that gets going relatively early Saturday morning.
The first “official” activity on Saturday is at 8:30 a.m. with the Arts and Crafts Show. It runs until 4 p.m. and takes place at the Taylor Rodeo Grounds in the center of town.
All of the activities (unless otherwise noted) are at the Rodeo Grounds at 202 E. Center St, according to event organizers.
At 10 a.m. is one of the big things in small towns — a parade down Main Street. This year’s theme is “You Are My Sunshine” and starts at 700 E. and Center Street, by the ballfield.
At 8 p.m. is another big attraction — especially with kids — a fireworks show.
For rodeo fans there are barrel races in the arena from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., and in a different area at noon (until finished) is a Corn Hole Tournament.
Call 928-243-1789 to register for the Corn Hole Tournament.
Then there are the lawnmower races at 3, 5, and 7 p.m., along with a Horseless Rodeo, a petting zoo and bounce houses for the kids.
And don’t forget there will be food vendors galore from 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Those who want to be in the parade or apply to be a vendor need to call 928-536-4331 or stop by the Chamber office at 113 N. Main in Snowflake before Aug. 29 for the parade, and by Aug. 30 for a vendor application.