Haboobs and the anatomy of a thunderstorm

Since we are now in the monsoon, and the haboob that ate Phoenix is the talk of the day, it is well to review the anatomy of thunderstorms and some safety tips.

The monsoon will bring much-needed rain, but it also brings lightning and destructive winds as well as the dust clouds called haboobs. The term “monsoon” does not mean rain or storms, but a seasonal shift in wind patterns. During the winter, Arizona air flow is usually from the west and we receive the remnants of Pacific storms. During the monsoon, the air flows from a southerly direction bringing us moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, and the tropical Pacific. The desert heat and orographic uplift from mountain ranges turn that moist air into thunderstorms.

The graphic below from the National Weather Service shows the parts of a monsoon thunderstorm. The storm is moving left to right.


 The first stage of thunderstorm development is the updraft where warm, moist air is lifted by columns of hot air rising in desert valleys or by air passing over a mountain range. This uplift causes water to condense to form cumulus clouds. Falling water droplets pull the air down with them to form the downdraft and rainy part of the storm. The strong downdraft causes a dust cloud, the Haboob, in front of the storm. Frequently dust devils dance in front of the Haboob. As the storm progresses, the downdraft can produce destructive microbursts of high wind. “Gustnadoes” are tornado-like vortex, similar to dust devils, but stronger, that appear to develop on the ground and extend several hundred feet upward. These vortices generally develop along the leading edge of an outflow boundary from a thunderstorm cell. Although generally of limited duration, the winds of gustnadoes can be strong enough to cause damage.

Some safety tips about lightning:

Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall. As a rule of thumb, if the time between lightning flash and thunder is 30 seconds or less, the lightning is about 6 miles away. Research has shown that the most successive flashes are within 6 miles of the first one, which means that you should have reached a safe place if lightning is less than 6 miles away.

If possible stay indoors or in an automobile. If outside, avoid isolated tall structures such as trees and power poles. Get off and away from open water. Avoid open metal vehicles such as tractors, farm equipment, motorcycles, and golf. Avoid power lines, wire fences, metal pipes and railings. If you are caught in an open area far from shelter, and you feel your hair stand on end, lightning may be about to strike you. Drop to your knees and bend forward putting your hands on your knees. DO NOT lie flat on the ground, that makes you a bigger target and a better conductor of electricity. Stay away from running water inside the house; avoid washing your hands or taking a bath or shower. Electricity from lightning has been known to come inside through plumbing. When inside, stay away from TV sets, electrical appliances, bathtubs and sinks, do not talk on the telephone, or play on the computer, don’t touch an electrical cord or outlet.

Be aware and be safe.

See also:

The Storm Over Tornadoes


  1. I was driving past sky harbor several years ago for the last one and saw it. I’ve seen the same thing here in Tucson.
    Fun to watch, dramatic. But that is what happens in deserts. 🙂
    As a comment – this is something that makes me nutz (and hate local weather people) – the most important thing in all this is …. wait for it …. uniform building codes. We dont experience major damage because of UBC’s. The most important things people can do are:
    1) Have your buildings inspected periodically to ensure they are up to code.
    2) Have an arborist examine any large trees every few years.
    3) Enjoy the weather knowing that you will be fine in your home. And ignore the terrorist and hype miester Chuck George. 🙂
    we generally have easy weather. utilities ‘save’ money by avoiding spending money on power poles. the result is every time a dirty cloud shows up power poles fall over (and chuck george tells us that evil nature almost got us).

  2. eventually connects with a charge reaching down from the clouds and – zap -…. can be seen as much as 100 miles from us depending on the height of the bolt …. and humid air coming from the Gulf of Mexico and that is why we have humid….

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