Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

Thunderstorms Hit The California Desert

South Palm Springs, this morning | Photo by Chris Clarke

It was about 4:00 am when the storm hit and woke us both. In part it was the barrage of thunder from close-by lightning strikes, and the pounding rain and hail that woke us. In part it was someone a block away on Palm Canyon, exhilarated by the sudden storm, doing a spot-on impression of Slim Pickens in the last minutes of the film Dr. Strangelove. Ordinarily Palm Springs' late-night party town whooping and hollering gets on my nerves, but I could understand Slim's reaction. It was a beautiful storm.

And it still is, as I write this weather report in which reporting consists of sticking my head out the door every so often. The flash flood warnings for this part of the desert have been lifted for the moment, and the air is redolent with the smell of creosote and electricity. Farther out in the desert people are battening hatches; as this moment a violent thunderstorm that is, in the words of the National Weather Service, capable of generating quarter-sized hail is bearing down on the towns of Desert Center and Chiriaco Summit. I was just there the day before yesterday, getting a little much-needed desert solitude. I can't help wishing I was there now: the flash-flooding and golfball hail would be pretty dramatic.

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Not that it isn't dramatic here. The Palm Springs Fire Department was up early, dousing flames in lightning-struck palm trees in parking lots and on golf courses. With each large, close lightning strike there came an answering chorus of car alarms.

There are two basic kinds of desert rainstorms: the fierce, temperature-driven summer monsoonal storms that generate intensely local and often very violent storm cells; and the larger-scale winter storms that spread out across wide areas of the desert, sometimes delivering a bit of a punch but more often just drenching the land in a steady rain. Today's storm doesn't really seem to fit in either category. It's violent like a summer monsoon, but it stretches from Calexico to Las Vegas. The culprit is a big low-pressure area in the Eastern Pacific sending a broad wave of moist air northeastward over the desert. Said desert is still summer-hot, with triple-digit temperatures across the region as late as yesterday, so the mass of moist air that might have caused winter storms in a cooler month has spurred a weather system with aspects of both kinds of storm system.

In the Coachella Valley, flooding from this storm has closed at least one state highway; Route 111 south of Mecca. The National Weather Service spotted a particularly violent thunderstorm atop the world's largest Joshua tree forest at Cima Dome, and Las Vegas cops are performing swiftwater rescues on city streets. If you're in the desert, take precautions: don't drive into flooded underpasses, stay out of deep washes for the afternoon and try not to be the tallest thing around if lightning is striking nearby.

But the sun has come out for a minute in Palm Springs, so I'm heading up to the coffee shop. I will take my Slim Pickens hat, though, just in case. You never know when you'll need one.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here. He lives in Palm Springs.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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