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10:10 AM Thu, Jan. 17th

Monsoon forecasts get boost with accurate prediction

PRESCOTT - Climate forecasters have hope for their ability to predict what type of monsoons the Southwest will get in the future, thanks to the success of one group of scientists this year.

In the past, federal climatologists have been reluctant to issue a long-lead forecast about the entire monsoon versus a short-term, day-to-day forecast. Scientists still do not understand a lot about the North American Monsoon.

Before the onset of this year's monsoon, University of Arizona Assistant Professor Chris Castro decided to stick his neck out and make several predictions: that the 2008 monsoon would come earlier than usual, it would produce more rain than normal, and it would produce more intense storms than usual.

All those things have turned out to be true so far, noted Castro and other Arizona climatologists who participated in an online climate briefing Wednesday. "We like what we see," Shawn Bennett, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque, told Castro. "We hope there's a track record of skills that develops with your forecast."

Castro also credited federal forecasters and a Mexican monsoon forecast from Art Douglas, who recently retired from his position as chair of the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

Castro is working with the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center on a regional computer model for the monsoon, with the help of a National Science Foundation grant.

"I believe that we're going to have great promise to improve the seasonal monsoon forecast over the next five years," Castro said.

He noted that forecasters need consistency to demonstrate any long-term skills with the monsoon.

Much of Arizona has seen above-average rainfall during the monsoon so far, but exceptions include the averages across Yavapai County, western Coconino County and the area bordering Utah, said Mike Staudenmaier, science officer at the National Weather Service's Flagstaff office.

Prescott hit 96 percent of its July average by Monday, but Cottonwood was at only 76 percent of average, he said. Bagdad had 136 percent of its average and Sedona had 94 percent.

Northern Arizona extremes were 215 percent of average at Canyon de Chelly and 73 percent of average at Page.

While southeastern Arizona has experienced only one dry spell so far during the monsoon, northern Arizona has had three, Staudenmaier said.

The region currently is in the midst of one of those rain breaks, but the National Weather Service expects the chance for rain in the Yavapai County Mountains to increase Friday through Monday, peaking at 40 percent by Monday and Tuesday.

Phoenix had recorded 2.15 inches of rain by Monday, with 1.51 inches at Wickenburg and 0.74 inches at Yuma.

It has also been hot this year in the Valley of the Sun, with 38 days topping 105 degrees, 18 days over 110 degrees and a trend of increasing days hotter than 110.

Southeastern Arizona is getting above-average rainfall, with 7.9 inches at Nogales, said Erik Pytlak, science officer at the National Weather Service office in Tucson.

It's been wet in New Mexico, with the extreme example in Ruidoso where more than 9 inches of rain fell in six hours Saturday night. Flooding led to the rescue of at least 600 people and killed at least one person.

Most of southern Arizona and southern New Mexico experienced 200-800 percent of average precipitation through June 22.

Northern Mexico is experiencing its second-wettest monsoon on record, behind only the year 1955, Castro said.

The long-term forecast from the National Weather Service is calling for equal chances of above-average, below-average or average rain in the Southwest through the fall, along with above-average temperatures.

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