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The Summer Monsoon

A late afternoon sky in Santa Fe, in July

Many people are surprised to find out that Santa Fe’s rainy season corresponds almost exactly to the height of the tourist season – July and August. They become even more alarmed when the locals refer to this as the “monsoon”. Monsoon?! Visions of Delhi submerged under six feet of muddy water fill their heads. Images of Myrna Loy drenched in the streets of Ranchipur haunt them. It’s not quite like that here in August, however – although a few opera lovers might disagree.

Monsoon has its roots in the Arabic language and it refers to a seasonal shift in the wind. In the American Southwest, toward the end of June or early in July, the prevailing westerly winds shift to southerly ones, bringing tropical moisture up from Mexico. Dew points climb. Mornings dawn with unusual mildness and the sun rises through screens of vapor over the mountains:

Morning sky over the Sangre de Cristo

Even on mornings that start off in golden clarity, it won’t be long before the powerful sun begins to boil the atmosphere:

Late morning sky over the Santa Fe Farmer's Market

Before you know it, an unexpected rumble of thunder fills the air and the breath of rain-cooled air sweeps over the city.

Most of these summer thundershowers are brief and only last 20 minutes or so. That’s just enough time to dodge under a welcoming portal and enjoy a respite from the sun. They are notorious for erupting right as the Santa Fe Opera lights its spacious stage for an opening. Many a production has been enhanced by the sturm und drang of a flaring late evening storm over the western mountains. Everyone comes to love them because of the way they cool down the evening to perfect sleeping weather. The afternoon sky is full of drama:

Ominous afternoon

Vistas in every direction are enhanced by the wonderful atmospherics:

Looking toward Albuquerque

And we admit it: sometimes you just get a traditional old rainy day, right in the middle of your summer vacation. You swear you’ll throttle the next local who says, “well, we need the moisture”. Even on these days the rain is bound to pause once in a while, to reveal heights wreathed in cloud and mist:

Bali Hai in Santa Fe

Of course, too much of a good thing is not always wonderful. You could be walking your dog in the arroyo one moment:

Walking the dog in the Santa Fe River

And the next running for the hills:

Minutes later!

This is a legitimate natural hazard, and one which you must be aware of in the summer when you are visiting our part of the country. Lightning is another danger, as is hypothermia, for those hikers that are enjoying a walk high in the mountains. Someone is struck and killed by lightning up in the highlands nearly every year.

Nevertheless, the summer monsoon is an important – even critical – component of life in the Southwest, and we all look forward to it every year. The landscape softens and greens, and our gardens thrive. The mountain heights become lush and fragrant. A second flush of wildflowers bursts forth, setting the stage for our glorious autumns of sunflowers and asters and chamisa.

Hairy Golden Aster brightening the land

So don’t forget to tuck in a travel umbrella when you come to visit us this summer. Bring a sweater if you’re planning to attend the Opera: that rain-chilled air is cooler than you probably expected. And keep you eyes open for rainbows – our summer sky is festooned with them:

Walking into the rainbow

Sometimes even two!

Double rainbow

fireplace

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