By Sunday night, it was plain that yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as winter in the desert southwest. Global warming apparently took a vacation up north somewhere in Canada, forgetting that this is the desert, where snow is supposed to be a novelty, not a frequent winter visitor.
A heavy winter storm swept through Arizona over the weekend, even dropping slushy flakes across the Phoenix metropolitan area Sunday.
Southward near the Mexican border, disappointed tourists asked, “Isn’t it supposed to be warm here?”
Some visitors to the area worried aloud Sunday evening at the prospect of being snowed in. Locals dismissed the idea, until the snow kept falling… and falling…
By 9pm Sunday, more than 2 inches of snow blanketed the tourist town of Tombstone, located some 30 miles north of the Mexican border. Conditions were no better in the rest of the region. One driver reported that in the sixteen-mile stretch between Tombstone and nearby Sierra Vista, snow plows managed to keep the road open. In the course of doing so, however, they left behind mounds of displaced powder that further restricted the already-narrow thoroughfare.
By midnight, the Arizona Department of Transportation reported that Highway 90 between Sierra Vista and Bisbee, running approximately parallel just a few miles south, had become impassible.
As of 11pm Sunday, the snow in the Tombstone area had reached a depth of about 4 inches. The white stuff covered every visible inch of State Highway 80, which runs through the tiny community. Side roads were indistinguishable from their surroundings.
Owners of regional attractions, on the cusp of what should have been their busiest season, were gnashing their teeth as Mother Nature slammed the area with snow for the fourth time in three weeks. Local motels and hotels, booked nearly solid during the same period last year, have seen occupancy slump to negligible levels. Restaurants have been closing early for several weeks. Nobody, it seems, has been willing (or able) to slog through ice and snow more common in the Midwest or Northeast than amid a landscape of cactus and tumbleweeds.
The irony isn’t lost on those living in a town defined by tourism. Many an Arizona rural community was founded on the mining industry — silver or copper, for the most part. Tombstone was no exception, forming around a silver boom in the 1800’s. When silver prices fell or mines played out, some communities became ghost towns, emptied of every business, left without a single resident. A few others, including Tombstone, survived by turning to the tourist trade, depending on Arizona’s typical mild winters to bring in people from around the world. This winter, though, the weather has not been a friend to local tourism.
When snow falls so far to the south in the desert, it tends to be very short-lived, unable to successfully fight the combination of sun and latitudes. However, normal snowfall just north of Old Mexico (when it happens at all) is a mere dusting — not three inches in an hour or two, with more falling fast and thick.
The latest storm promises to be the most powerful to date in what’s proving to be an uncharacteristically moist, cold winter. In north-central Arizona, roads became impassible early in the day Sunday but were reopened later in the day, albeit with snow and ice warnings.
Highway 87 from Phoenix north to Payson was shut down before 11am Sunday morning due to locally heavy snowfall. When roads finally reopened late Sunday afternoon, chains were required for drivers heading up State Route 260 past the tiny community of Christopher Creek, some twenty miles to the east. Heading north of Payson toward Pine and Strawberry on Highway 87, snow chains were also a requirement. Travelers were advised of snow and ice on the road virtually everywhere in Arizona.
Arizona officials were strongly discouraging non-emergency travel Sunday night. For anyone who driving despite the weather, advisories urged taking along a flashlight, food and water, and being prepared for emergency conditions on the road.
The Arizona Department of Transportation cited “extremely hazardous driving conditions” on US 60 near Globe, in the eastern half of the state. North of the Mogollon Rim, there was ice and snow reported over virtually the entire span of I-40 from the New Mexico border on the east to California on the west. But the most extreme conditions were predicted in the southern half of the state.
The National Weather Service Sunday issued severe weather warnings encompassing the southeastern third of Arizona, along with an equivalent portion of southwestern New Mexico. As of late Sunday, NOAA Weather was predicting accumulations of up to 6 inches of snow for regions of Arizona and New Mexico below 5000 feet in elevation, with as much as 18 inches at altitudes above 8000 feet. The communities of Tombstone and Sierra Vista in Southern Arizona sit at approximately 4600 feet. A few miles to the east, Bisbee rises some 800 feet higher, wedged into a narrow valley amid the Mule Mountains.
Interstate 10 east of Tucson was reportedly open as of just after midnight on Monday morning, albeit with ice and snow on the roadway and lane restrictions near Benson, Arizona. Several other state highways have been declared impassible for the night, including Highway 191 between Wilcox and Safford. Wilcox sits on I-10 east of Tucson: Safford is forty miles north of Wilcox.
The wintry weather is expected to continue at least until Monday night. However, temperatures will gradually rise, turning snow into cold rain at lower elevations, with further significant snow accumulations expected only in the highest mountain areas by late Monday.
The snow may prove a boon for one tourist center. Mt. Lemmon, near Tucson, is the southernmost ski resort in North America, one of the few southwestern tourist attractions where snow and winter conditions are welcome. But it’s by no means guaranteed. While the storm system dumped snow on Arizona’s Snowbowl ski area near Flagstaff earlier in the week, skiers were turned away Saturday morning because heavy winds carried away most of the powder on the slopes.