Desert Seasons

By Nancy Lucas

Some people say we have two seasons, hot and hotter. Others say we have six months of heaven and six months of hell. If you grew up with the traditional four seasons, like most transplanted Arizonans have, you’re aware that we have seasons, but their not the same as you remember. In the desert, where the sun passes nearly overhead at noon in June and July, the rules are quite unlike those in more temperate climes..

Naturalists disagree on to what our seasons are, what they should be called, and when they begin and end. In the Sonoran Desert, rainfall, rather than time of year, more clearly predicts our seasons than the calendar. Since rainfall is so inconsistent, it is difficult to create clear cut times for particular seasons. The Tohono O’odham Indians saw each month as a different season, for example: Rainy Moon in July, Big Cold Moon in December, and Yellow Moon in April. According to the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum Book of Answers, we actually have five seasons. That extra season? It’s summer of course.

Spring usually arrives sometime in February and departs in April. If the conditions are just right, (see Desert Blooms), desert wildflowers will burst out of their pods and show off their radiant colors and delicate petals. It is a short season, and a time of re–birth. Mourning doves build their nests, and mammals bear their young. Spring is the time of year that ocotillos send out their bright red flowers.

The first of our two summers, Foresummer or Dry Summer, is in May and June. It is the hottest, most difficult time of year for all forms of life. Some plants and animals become dormant as they wait for rain to return. All is quiet under the glaring noonday sun, but javelina, lizards and other animals are active in the cooler mornings and evenings. Even during this harsh time, there are signs of life as paloverdes, ironwoods and saguaros are in full bloom.

Our second summer is the Summer Monsoon, when clouds build up during the day, then with a great show of thunder and lightening, pour their contents on the hard–packed desert. The season brings flash floods and cooler temperatures, and the most awe–inspiring sunsets of the year. I have seen the entire sky turn garishly pink–red–orange. Accompanied by distant lightening and thunder, it is one of Mother Nature’s most accomplished works of "performance art."   Special 2001 monsoon season sunsets [Read More]   

The Summer Monsoons also bring the desert back to life, as wildflowers appear, insects emerge, and one of our most fascinating creatures, the poisonous Sonoran Desert toads (aka Colorado River toads) come out to breed. These toads defend themselves by secreting a poison that can be deadly for small creatures, like dogs and cats. These toads should not be handled in any way, and if you or your pet do make contact, wash the affected area thoroughly and immediately. For pets, medical attention may be required.

This could also be called, the "second chance" summer, when some plants re–leaf, birds re–nest, and cottontails re–breed.

Fall arrives in the middle of September and lasts until November. It’s much like the first, dry summer, but less severe. Summer flowers dry out and fade away as it begins to cool. The lizards go back underground. At times, there are late tropical storms, or early rains, which can extend the season. Personally, it seems like the longest part of the year as temperatures linger around the 100 mark day after day after day.

December and January mark the winter season. It is a period of gentle rain when trees and cacti cease to grow and small mammals like packrats go into hibernation. Days are mild and on rare occasions, the temperatures can freeze and the sky will drop snow on the saguaro. The winter season also marks the appearance of the "Snowbird," a creature often seen on golf courses, in shopping malls, at matinees, and stopped at street corners, deciding if it’s OK to turn right on a red light in Arizona.

Our seasons are different from other parts of the United States, that’s one of the things that make the Sonoran Desert such a special place to live. We must cherish its unique qualities, and safeguard its precious, perfect, flora and fauna to ensure their continued existence.


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Friends of the Scenic Drive, Division of the Greater Pinnacle Peak Association
Scottsdale, AZ 85255