Arizona Storm Chasers Gear Up for Monsoon Season

Storm chaser Mike Olbinski captured this image of a haboob, or dust storm, hitting Phoenix in 2011.
Storm chaser Mike Olbinski captured this image of a haboob, or dust storm, hitting Phoenix in 2011.

The North American Monsoon is officially upon us. For the next three months, Arizona will be prone to heavy downpours, flash floods, dust storms, dry lightning, perhaps even a tornado or two.

While most residents will witness the weather from the relative safety of their homes, a handful of Arizona storm chasers will be traversing the state with cars and cameras, hunting for the monsoons. 

"This is what I would call our season for storm chasers, at least in Arizona," says Bryan Snider, a 30-year-old storm chaser in Maricopa. "It's an exciting time of year. This is kind of the event where you can have storms almost every day somewhere in Arizona."

Since 2011, Snider has worked as a professional storm chaser and photographer. Armed with his camera and weather forecasts, he estimates he drives up to 15,000 miles each summer pursuing the monsoons across the state.

Snider makes a living licensing his photos and time-lapse videos to televisions shows, commercials, and movie makers, as well as selling artistic prints. In the fall, he supplements his income with other photography work. 

In the Midwest, chasers hunt tornados. In the Southwest, the summer monsoons create a different opportunity, one for which Arizona is North America's ground zero.

"People think of Arizona as being a hot, dry desert, but that's far from the truth," Snider says. "Our weather actually is exciting. Arizona is a pretty cool place to witness weather."

Storm chaser Bryan Snider caught this lightning strike while pursuing the summer monsoons.EXPAND
Storm chaser Bryan Snider caught this lightning strike while pursuing the summer monsoons.

For Phoenix storm chaser Mike Olbinski, 41, hunting dramatic weather is a compulsion. The married father of three has been hunting professionally since 2010, and later quit his job to pursue storms full-time. Like Snider, Olbinski earns a living licensing photos of monsoons and dramatic weather like tornados, which he chases across the country. He also works seasonally photographing weddings and families. 

"It's almost like an addiction," he says. "At this point, it's something I can't help but do. I can't stop doing it."

Marked by a seasonal reversal of the predominant weather pattern, the official monsoon season lasts from June 15 to September 30. Each summer, winds develop from the southwest, drawing moisture from both the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico. Combined with Arizona's intense summer heat, that moist air creates thunderstorms.

Big ones. According to National Weather Service statistics, monsoon season can account for up to half the state's annual rainfall.

"Storm chasing is about going out and capturing it," Olbinski says. "I think it's a thrill to be able to capture something amazing on camera that I'll have forever. Especially lightning, because every lightning bolt is different, and fascinating."

In addition to professional storm chasers, about 3,000 trained "storm spotters" in Arizona volunteer with the weather service's Skywarn Spotter Program to report significant events around the state.

"Our fancy technology, with satellites and radar, still can't see all the time what’s going on on the ground," says the aptly named Ken Waters, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Phoenix. "These volunteers provide that vital element of eyes on the ground for us, that we would not otherwise have."

Waters says it’s too early to know whether 2016 will be a dramatic year for monsoons, but the record-breaking heat that has plagued Phoenix so far this month may boost our chances.

With flash flooding, extreme heat, and the occasional tornado, monsoon season can be dangerous and even life-threatening.EXPAND
With flash flooding, extreme heat, and the occasional tornado, monsoon season can be dangerous and even life-threatening.

"It's really difficult to predict much about the monsoon season before it starts," Waters says. "Each monsoon season is quite variable. You never have one that's the same year after year."

According to the National Weather Service, Phoenix's wettest monsoon season on record since 1896 occurred in 1984, when 9.56 inches of rain fell. The driest monsoon was 1924, with just over one-third of an inch. The average comes out to 2.71 inches.

Between the extreme heat and threat of flash flooding, summers in Arizona can be dangerous, even life-threatening. In the Southwest since 1995, lightning strikes, high winds, wildfires, tornadoes, and flash flooding have caused an annual average of 10 deaths and 60 injuries, along with millions of dollars in damage.

To reduce the hazard, Governor Doug Ducey has proclaimed the opening of monsoon season Monsoon Awareness Week.

"The best thing the public can do is to stay aware of weather conditions, especially if you get a cell-phone alert for a flash flood, or dust-storm warnings," says Waters. "Take those pretty seriously. Every year, we end up having to deal with rescues. And that's never good."

Editor's note: This story has been updated from the original version.

Snider says the thrill of being surrounded by storms keeps him chasing monsoons each summer.EXPAND
Snider says the thrill of being surrounded by storms keeps him chasing monsoons each summer.

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