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February 26, 2021

48th-state weather: There are no words

At State Forty Eight, we’re proud of our home, which is, as you’ve probably figured out, America’s 48th state. There are many amazing things here, human-made and natural, that you won’t find anywhere else. There’s that big ol’ canyon, of course — file that one under “natural” — but that’s just for starters. Go to the Atlas Obscura site, enter our name (Arizona’s, not SFE’s), and see a few of our wonderments.

Not everything that makes Arizona Arizona is as photo-friendly as The Big Hole. (Speaking of getting that perfect selfie at the canyon: best not. Google “Grand Canyon selfie death.” It’s a thing.) There are also features about our state that you probably don’t want to experience, starting with this list of “13 Terrifying Creatures That Live In Arizona And Could Actually Kill You.

Fact is, a complete list of all the attractions / distractions for visitors and persuaders / dissuaders for potential movers-in would take a lot longer to read than you have right now. But there are two phenomena about the Copper State — that’s our other nickname, alongside the canyon one — that are so striking and unique, even to us natives, that we had to borrow the words to describe them; and not from any of our brother/sister contiguous 48 states. We had to go a lot farther than that.

 

48th State Weird Weather Word No. 1

New Arizonans, at least those in the hotter parts of the 48th state, are surprised during their first summer when they hear their neighbors use this word. It’s a word that’s spoken hopefully, almost reverently, like the name of a legendary person, like King Arthur or Elvis, whose eagerly awaited return has been long foretold.

“Monsoon.”

Now, if you’ve seen monsoons in movies about India, you know how impressive the rains and storms it brings can be. The annual monsoon season there, from July through September, is where nearly 80 percent of the rainfall in India comes from — long, intense downpours that dump incomprehensible amounts of water on the subcontinent.

Well, those monsoons ain’t our monsoons.

Not that we wouldn’t welcome one if it came over here. Let’s face it, when you’re waking up to another day when the temperature’s going to be over 110 — Phoenix residents woke up to more than 50 of those days in a row last year — even a cataclysmic thunderstorm starts to look pretty attractive.

But no, Arizona’s monsoon season, which begins maybe sometime in June and also runs through September, goes by the more scientific, less-impressive-than-the-movies definition, which is, “A seasonal wind which lasts for several months.” In some places around the globe, that wind can bring rain; lots and lots of it if it’s coming your way from a place that has lots and lots of water, which isn’t anywhere around Arizona. In fact, during that blazing hot summer last year, lots of parched Arizonans changed the name of our much-anticipated seasonal wind to “non-soon.”

Still, even in the years that our monsoon doesn’t bring downpours, there’s one thing we can count on it to bring to some parts of the state, which brings us to …

 

48th State Weird Weather Word No. 2

Just because the monsoon season doesn’t bring rain doesn’t mean there’s no wind. Of course, we’re not talking about a pleasant, cooling summer breeze.

(Time out for a quick heads-up: If you’re not from here and you perkily tell an Arizonan in the summertime, “Hey, at least it’s a dry heat!” the response you’re likely to get is, “112 degrees is still 112 degrees. And shut up.”)

But wind being wind, it’s still looking for something to pick up, carry along and blow around. And if it doesn’t find water, which we don’t have much of, it’ll settle for what we do have. In enormous quantities. So sometimes our summer monsoon brings dust storms. Some of those can be real whoppers. And the biggest of them is what we call a …

“Haboob.”

Now, if you’re that 48th state-newbie you read about a coupla minutes ago, you might be surprised when you hear someone in Arizona, a state with a fair proportion of residents who might not be politically inclined to borrow an Arabic word … tossing out an Arabic word. But really, there’s a good reason for it.

Going back to our friends at Merriam-Webster, we find haboob defined as “a violent dust storm or sandstorm.” Trust the M-W. These babies can be violent. And big, big, big. “How big?” asks the Haboob Newb. In 2011, the biggest one ever to hit the Valley of the Sun (the area around Phoenix), was 100 miles wide and 5,000 feet tall. Here’s what that looks like rolling over Phoenix. And here’s what that looks like to a 48th state-newbie who doesn’t know enough not to drive into it.

OK, yeah, to be honest, some of us natives might keep driving, too. But this one? Probably wasn’t a good idea.

 

Still, why do we have to borrow weather words?

Calling Arizona’s monsoon “the monsoon” makes sense. The only reason it seems odd when you first get here is because you remember those movies. Then you go a’Googling and find “seasonal wind” and it seems right, even though you still wish for that rain. But why “haboob”? Why does a storm like that send us to a far-off language, to borrow a word that most people on our continent have never heard, to describe it?

Probably because we don’t know what the hell else to call it. “The wrath of God?” “The end of days?” “Dorothy, for chrissakes, get in the basement!”? (We don’t have enough basements, either.)

The fact is, calling it a haboob does two things: When you’re talking to neighbors, it describes something completely indescribable but that you both understand. And when you’re talking to out-of-staters, it’s an opening for telling some cool stories.

Like the ones you just read.P.S. Seriously, watch those videos. Then if you’re driving when the monsoon starts haboobing, please do what the Arizona Department of Transportation says. Because we love our customers.