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The Weather Service guys are acting like guys talking about the weather. They're still going back and forth about the storm warning. They'll debate anything. They've got theories. There's nothing weather wonks like better than to talk about the unsolved puzzles of the field. Where does all the upper-level moisture of an Arizona monsoon come from? Well, it could be the Gulf of California . . . but then again, it might be the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe it's both.
Or: Why do certain parts of the Valley get hit worse than others? Why does Union Hills always flood? Why does Deer Valley get high winds? Is it the topography?
When Littleton Elementary in Cashion had the roof of its fifth- and sixth-grade building torn off during class last year, they argued about that, too. Even the AZTC and NSSL guys got in on that one. John Moore says he was the first guy on the scene. The roof came right off, the ceilings caved in, and insulation was sprinkled all over the playground. Big wooden beams--ripped right outta there. It's amazing only one person was seriously hurt, a teacher who suffered a severe concussion when she was hit by a falling beam.
Was it a microburst? Or a tornado? Some witnesses reported seeing a funnel cloud, but if the Weather Service had a nickel for every time someone reported seeing a funnel cloud, well, maybe they'd all buy designer umbrellas. One of the NSSL guys finally wrote an analysis of how the 100-mph winds that also felled a milelong stretch of power poles on 107th Avenue could have been a weird combination of both a microburst and a tornado. Okay, fair enough.
But maybe the most burning question of all: Why has Phoenix missed out on all the rain? Why are storms dying out or changing direction before they actually get here?
On the radio, John Moore, Unit 3, crackles in to Stormbase.
"Unit 3, this is Stormbase. Go ahead."
"Just checking in to see if I missed anything. I was out of the vehicle for a while."
"No, it's still a waiting game at this point . . . that's what the NWS radar guys are telling me."
Lucas looks askance, holding the microphone at his chest. "It's frustrating," he says. "The conditions are there. There's a good dust line to the north. This one"--he motions southwest--"is dying out. We're set for convergence. One big one should form. But it hasn't. Or it doesn't want to."
Then again, maybe, if weather dudes Jim Howl and Royal Norman of KTVK-TV are right, it can't. Something they call the urban heat island is beating it senseless. Why is Phoenix not getting rained on the way it used to? Because of the concrete and the reflective glass and the people and the automobiles that have piled into this Big Bang metropolis over the past decade and spawned a dome of heat that is bumping monsoon storms aside, or just plain sucking the life out of them. The storms march toward the Valley and suddenly shoot their wads in places like Mesa and Chandler and Wickenburg and Fountain Hills. Surface temperatures are hotter where asphalt is than where desert is, and the same principle extends upward. Now, these little storms that are getting pulled around at the whim of upper-level winds just get thwacked aside. And no gorilla monsoons.
The Weather Service guys don't buy this one at all. They and the TV forecasters aren't always on the same cloud, anyway, and the educational--their word--information they send forecasters often just gets ripped up and thrown in the trash. This is the sort of thing that can draw the line between meteorologists, the ones with the framed degrees, and weather forecasters like Howl, who supplement whatever weather education they can get with years of experience spent in a place.
Monsoon storms, the degreed ones counter, are not so tiny. They are massive forces, sometimes packing more energy than an atomic bomb, occasionally moving against the wind flow, and you're going to tell us that something like a heat dome is going to knock them aside, much less kill them right where they stand?
Weather Service forecaster Hector Vasquez says it's more a matter of storms being drawn to other moisture, which has not tended to be in Phoenix.
Says Howl, who has pushed the heat island notion on KTVK newscasts, much to the Weather Service's annoyance: "I've seen them issue severe thunderstorm warnings for the East Valley, where the storms are moving toward Phoenix, and then in 15 minutes they cancel the thing. Now why wouldn't that storm come in here? . . . I don't think they want to say, 'Oh, we have a heat island,' because being an official agency, there's no official research done on it."
Vasquez: "When [Howl] says the Weather Service is not convinced, he's talking about me."
But Cerveny isn't keen on the idea of heat islands, either. "It's a possibility," he says. "But I think it's relatively remote. The energy associated with thunderstorms is so immense that a city is not going to make much difference. But that's why we do research."