As humankind’s original Topic A, the weather receives huge amounts of daily discussion. Yet in a twist to the old axiom about how everybody talks about the weather, Valley meteorologists want to do something about it.
As the Tribune’s Mike Branom reported Tuesday, changing how the general public can refer to the meteorological phenomenon known as the Arizona monsoon is being considered by the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service. The term “summer thunderstorm season” was initially nominated by officials as a more accurate description of the effects of the monsoon.
Forecasters are concerned that Arizonans, and particularly the large number of new arrivals each year, are befuddled by the word “monsoon.” Some people think of either torrential all-day rainfalls lasting for months found in the jungles of south Asia or central Africa, or, as the weather service’s meteorologist-in-charge Tony Haffer told us Wednesday, use the term as a noun for a particular day’s storm, as in, “That was quite a monsoon we had last night.”
Both characterizations are inaccurate, said Haffer, who told Branom that such incorrect notions bog people down into discussions of meteorological minutiae and away from this time of year’s central message:
Monsoon storms are violent, with dust storms that can blind motorists and short-lasting but hard rains that can fill washes with fast-running, powerful walls of water. These torrents can easily carry vehicles and people away, at times to their deaths, and can damage anything else in their paths.
Haffer told us that since the Tribune’s story was published, he’s less eager to abandon the term monsoon, so he’s challenging his staff, the media and the public to help come up with terminology that most everyone can quickly and easily understand while still accurately describing the phenomenon.
“What we call that has become the topic of more controversy than we can imagine,” said Haffer, who said he already has been hearing ideas from the public. “We’re not going to remove ‘monsoon’ but we need to consider something that’s catchy.” Haffer posed one early nominee: “Arizona monsoon and severe weather season.” Not bad, but it is too long.
Simpler is better, and “Arizona monsoon” is wellknown. And while Haffer and his fellow meteorologists are properly concerned with increasing public understanding, we believe that it’s not so much the term used as whether the public understands what it means quickly and clearly.
To that end we agree with one idea Haffer told Branom that forecasters are considering: Declare a fixed time frame for the monsoon, as is done with the annual Atlantic hurricane season, defined as occurring between June 1 and Nov. 30. Perhaps the Arizona monsoon should be defined as taking place between July 1 and Sept. 15.
Currently the monsoon is defined as starting each year on the first of three days where each day’s average dew point is 55 degrees or higher. Throw in the fact that according to this definition the monsoon starts in different parts of Arizona on different days each year. As Branom reported, its a formula that’s the subject for quite a bit of debate over details rather than for paying attention to the season’s dangers.
With the calendar rather than precise application of a meteorological formula declaring the annual monsoon, the public can become that much more focused.
“Somehow we have to come to a happy medium to have ‘monsoon’ in the title,” Haffer said. “ ‘Thunderstorm’ is too ho-hum. ‘Severe’ is better.”
“Severe” does have more gravitas. But the National Weather Service would serve the public better by giving up on conjuring new names. Instead, it should set a fixed period on the calendar for the Arizona monsoon and continue working on better ways to publicize the important warnings of the season.