Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

It’s hot and the late 2023 monsoon season is drying up New Mexico

Triple-digit temperatures are part of a heatwave scorching the southern part of the state and turning up the heat across the rest of New Mexico.

But there’s little relief so far from the monsoons – those patterns of afternoon and evening seasonal summer rains that douse the state and often provide crucial moisture.

Across the globe, hot days are hotter and happen more often – a consequence of human-caused climate change. In recent days, heat shattered global records. New Mexico’s neighbor, Texas, was one of the hottest places on the planet in late June. This additional heat trapped in our oceans and atmosphere is pushing the normal cycles of our climate to hotter extremes more often.

Where’s the monsoon at?

The seasonal pattern of warming and cooling in the Pacific Ocean which impacts North America’s weather is switching to an El Niño pattern, often meaning warmer temperatures and winds. This leads to a delayed, or shorter monsoon season in New Mexico, in part because the moisture from the ocean is pushed out East away from the state, or staying over the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s these pesky Western winds during an El Niño that results in what we jokingly refer to a ‘non-soon’ because we don’t get the moisture that we normally see,” said Meteorologist Andrew Church, out of the National Weather Service Albuquerque office.

Recent rainy evenings in eastern New Mexico gives just that portion of the state chances of near-normal moisture. The rest of the state is high (temperatures) and dry.

From the high mountains to the lowlands in Southern NM, most communities are missing out on key rain from the delayed monsoon season.

Las Cruces is about an inch short of rain compared to normal, said Connor Dennhardt, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Office in Santa Teresa, which covers the southern portion of the state and El Paso, Texas.

That small amount is a significant missing chunk when Las Cruces only averages about 8 to 9 inches of rain per year.

“Whether it’s the mountains, or Las Cruces, or El Paso, we’re all running up at about 30% to 50% of what we should have from January 1 to this time of year,” Dennhardt said.

The cracked riverbed lays exposed in El Paso, Texas, on May 23, 2022. The riverbed below Elephant Butte Reservoir is often empty for most of the year, as the river only runs during irrigation season, which is shortened by drought. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Along with less rain, it’s abnormally hot. Looking at the last 30 years of data, he said, temperatures so far this year in July are between five to 10 degrees hotter than the average temperature for mid-July.

The heat risk is still high for people in the mountains around Silver City, or in Cloudcroft, where they are seeing between 80 to 90-degree temperature days.

“A lot of folks don’t have central air up there, because they so rarely need it,” Dennhardt said.

There’s chances of scattered thunderstorms across the region, but not much is expected to hit Las Cruces or El Paso. There may be a slight break in the temperatures next week, but the forecasts don’t look good for the monsoons until possibly August, Dennhardt said.

Drought still a threat

While two years of strong monsoons combined with fall and winter storms brought much needed snow and rain to lessen the impacts of drought.

Last year, more than half the state was in exceptional drought – the most severe rating meaning “exceptional and widespread crop and pasture losses, exceptional fire risk, shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells causing water emergencies.” And more than 90% of the state was in extreme drought.

This year, much of the state is in no drought, with pockets of drought in the Southeast corner, Farmington region andDoña Ana County. That drought status, plus high temperatures and a delayed monsoon season could cause issues that might harm the areas for years.

New Mexico’s drought position is better this year compared to recent years, although continued high temperatures and a lack of rain could increase it’s drought conditions. (Photo Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor)

U.S. Drought Monitor researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said without a strong monsoon in July, the area around Doña Ana County and other portions of the state could see drought development again.

“If you continue to see a slow start to the monsoon, combined with hotter than normal temperatures that can certainly quickly put you back into more significant dry conditions and potentially some at least a moderate drought in that area,” said Curtis Riganti, a climatologist for U.S. Drought Monitor.

State Climatologist Dave DuBois said this weather can pose long-term drought problems by drying out soils beneath the ground. Those thirsty soils have big impacts on rangeland and ecosystems.

“We had problems in the past in the Rio Grande,” he said. “Even with above average snowpack, it gets absorbed into the soils with a lot of thirst, before it ever made it to the stream channels and rivers.”

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