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Summer monsoon in southern California

Updated on December 5, 2014
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Time for summer thunderstorms

In general, southern California rarely gets rain in the summer. Some years, it doesn't even get much rain in the winter or spring, either. But, many years, there's a special kind of weather flow into the area called the southwest monsoons. It's similar to the monsoon season in places like India and parts of Africa and Asia, but nowhere as strong. It starts with a ridge of high press that "circulates" tropical moisture around and into southern California and Arizona. When the warm moist air hits the cooler mountains, it rises and condenses into thunderstorms. Most of the storms are confined to the mountains, but some make their way over to the coast.

In the last few years, however, there have been fewer and fewer thunderstorms in the mountains and those that did occur had little rain. But, in some years, there was so much rain that there would be flash flooding. Rain also hits various areas of the desert resulting in flash floods that can wash out roads and cause mudslides.

All of the photos in this article were provided by me, but mostly taken a few years back and most are in 35mm. Many of them were taken before the last major wildfire in 2007. Some of them may have had the clouds slightly enhanced because the cheap cameras I had would overexpose and make the weather look a lot brighter. We haven't really had a good monsoon season here since about 2006 or 2007, though we did have some head waves and I did hear some thunder about twenty miles inland from the coast.

***Lightning is dangerous! If you hear thunder, lightning may not be far away. Stay safe!

Santa Ysabel Storm
Santa Ysabel Storm | Source

Weather in the mountains

Here are a few links to places that show the weather in the mountains in southern California and the desert. That way, you can see when the thunderstorms are happening or about to happen. Usually, the best sign of a coming monsoon thunderstorm is when the humidity and dewpoints get really high and the sky is at least partly cloudy. Most storms begin to form in the late morning around 11 a.m. or noon and usually peak about 2 or 3 p.m. give or take a few hours.


Weather guides and fun gadgets

I picked out a few fun books and gadgets for all you weatherphiles to look at. Some of these items can help with weather identification and hold interesting stories.

The Weather Identification Handbook: The Ultimate Guide for Weather Watchers
The Weather Identification Handbook: The Ultimate Guide for Weather Watchers

Your basic weather ID book with information on cloud identification, severe weather, rain, etc. It's done in a reader-friendly way. Knowing which clouds and weather conditions will bring rain and thunderstorms will help if you want to find or avoid them.

 
Weather For Dummies
Weather For Dummies

For those who need the basic how and why on weather. The "Dummies" series is great because it breaks up the information into easy-to-read sections and has a lot of graphics to explain some of the more complicated issues.

 
Me in the desert
Me in the desert | Source

I travel to view thunderstorms

This may sound strange, but I used to deliberately travel to the mountains and desert to look at and photograph thunderstorms. I also sometimes take photos to use as a reference for some of my landscape artwork. It's funny, because I used to be so scared of thunderstorms when I lived in the Detroit area as a kid. But, we get so little of any weather at all here and most of it is not very dangerous, so it's not as scary.

The photo in this section is of me several years ago in the desert in the middle of a thunderstorm in the desert. When I got down to the desert floor, I could see it still raining up in the hills where I was at. Then, lightening struct the top of the hill, but not where I was at before.

***That reminds me to tell everyone to be extra careful when out in storms, even ones that rarely have lightning or are viewed far away like the ones I photograph. First of all, if you hear thunder, lightning is probably very close and may even be close enough to strike you. Take cover in a car or building until it passes. Do not take shelter under trees or tall brush. If you are out in the open, stay low to the ground. Try to use tripods and other equipment with metals that are less conductive (or not at all).

I realize I am taking a risk going out in storms and wouldn't want anyone to get hurt because of what they read in this article. Many of the cloud formations I have photographed have not, yet, formed enough to create thunder and lightning or are at a great distance from me.

Santa Ysabel Storm

Santa Ysabel Storm
Santa Ysabel Storm | Source

Check out this video on the monsoon

The video below was taken by a monsoon chaser in southern California very recently. He has several videos on different monsoon effects all around southern California. This one was done in Riverside in September 2014.

Chasing the monsoon in Southern California

Photos of monsoon cloud formations - Storms either forming or in progress

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Another shot of a storm over Santa Ysabel.Photo of a storm forming just to the north of Palm Springs.Storm clouds over eastern Heise park near Julian, CA.  Many of the trees in the photo had burned down in the 2003 Ceder fires.Storm forming over Lake Henshaw.  Not long after this photo was taken, it began to rain extremely heavy.  As a result, there was a massive mudslide about five miles away where several cars were trapped on the highway.Storm clouds from a bad storm near Palomar Mountain Observatory.  it really raged bad up there.  Luckily, the observatory was open.Monsoon clouds near Santa Ysabel.Monsoonal moisture over Morongo Valley.Some monsoonal moisture forming over the Vulcan mountain area of Julian, CA.
Another shot of a storm over Santa Ysabel.
Another shot of a storm over Santa Ysabel. | Source
Photo of a storm forming just to the north of Palm Springs.
Photo of a storm forming just to the north of Palm Springs. | Source
Storm clouds over eastern Heise park near Julian, CA.  Many of the trees in the photo had burned down in the 2003 Ceder fires.
Storm clouds over eastern Heise park near Julian, CA. Many of the trees in the photo had burned down in the 2003 Ceder fires. | Source
Storm forming over Lake Henshaw.  Not long after this photo was taken, it began to rain extremely heavy.  As a result, there was a massive mudslide about five miles away where several cars were trapped on the highway.
Storm forming over Lake Henshaw. Not long after this photo was taken, it began to rain extremely heavy. As a result, there was a massive mudslide about five miles away where several cars were trapped on the highway.
Storm clouds from a bad storm near Palomar Mountain Observatory.  it really raged bad up there.  Luckily, the observatory was open.
Storm clouds from a bad storm near Palomar Mountain Observatory. it really raged bad up there. Luckily, the observatory was open. | Source
Monsoon clouds near Santa Ysabel.
Monsoon clouds near Santa Ysabel. | Source
Monsoonal moisture over Morongo Valley.
Monsoonal moisture over Morongo Valley. | Source
Some monsoonal moisture forming over the Vulcan mountain area of Julian, CA.
Some monsoonal moisture forming over the Vulcan mountain area of Julian, CA.

Do you ever go out and look for weather that's different than where it usually is where you live?

Do you chase or travel to view weather?

See results

Do you like to photograph the sky?

Do you like different types of weather?

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    • profile image

      Kaylee 

      3 years ago

      Keep on writing and chugigng away!

    • Joyfulcrown profile image

      Joyfulcrown 

      3 years ago

      Hi Shorebird. I am from Southern California too. We have had more rain this winter then normal which is a very good thing. Your pictures are beautiful.

    • Judy Filarecki profile image

      Judy Filarecki 

      5 years ago from SW Arizona and Northern New York

      I don't like bad weather, but I love photographing and painting clouds. I did a lens that shows how I painted a cloudy sunset

    • profile image

      RaniaCalvenea 

      5 years ago

      I grew up near Palm Springs and remember some flash floods in the summer.

    • shewins profile image

      shewins 

      5 years ago

      Beautiful photos, thanks for sharing them!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      You are an adventurous spirit! I usually will head in the other direction if possible but, I guess I do enjoy all sorts of weather and for some reason sleep my best sometimes when there's a thunderstorm....congratulations on your Bravo Squidoo feature and be careful out there! :)

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