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Humbled pros seek redemption as monsoon prediction contest returns

A woman wades into storm runoff in the Rillito River west of Swan Road in August 2021. The Southwest Monsoon Fantasy Forecasts game is back. The second annual contest developed by researchers at the University of Arizona will award prizes to those with the most accurate predictions of this year's monsoon season.

The University of Arizona’s monsoon forecasting contest has blown back into town, just in time for the first signs of summer storm activity.

The second annual Southwest Monsoon Fantasy Forecasts game will award prizes to those with the most accurate predictions for this year’s (hopefully) rainy season.

“I think this is going to be a fun year this year,” said one of the architects of the contest, Zack Guido, an assistant research professor at the UA’s Arizona Institute for Resilient Environments and Societies or AIRES. “I don’t think it’s going to be a dry year, but maybe that’s wishful thinking.”

The game works the same way it did in 2021: Before the start of each monsoon month, contestants will go online to guess how much rain will fall in each of the five major U.S. cities in the path of the weather phenomenon: Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, Albuquerque and El Paso.

Points are awarded based on the riskiness and accuracy of those predictions.

This time around, participants have until the final day of the previous month to make their guesses. Forecasts for July, the first round of the competition, are due by 11:59 p.m. on June 30.

The contest is run by Guido, his AIRES colleagues Ben McMahan, Rey Granillo and Leland Boeman, UA climatologist Michael Crimmins and undergraduate Dharma Hoy.

Entry is free, though players are asked to complete a short questionnaire about their monsoon knowledge and experience before making their predictions.

When they launched the competition last year, Guido said, they expected it to mostly attract “weather nerds” like them. Instead, most contestants identified themselves as weather forecasting novices or beginners, he said.

That’s why organizers decided to offer prizes this year with more universal appeal than the sophisticated, weather-monitoring instruments they handed out to the winners in 2021.

“We want a bigger audience,” said Guido, who is also the principal investigator for the research study behind the game that is meant to promote climate awareness and evaluate public forecasting skills.

The top three finishers in this year’s contest will walk away with Amazon gift cards valued at $400, $300 and $200, courtesy of AIRES.

The big winner last year was Emily Stulz, a new social media director at the university who had just moved to Arizona from her native Michigan and had never seen a monsoon before.

She out-guessed 295 other contestants, including some prominent desert researchers, climate experts and members of the game’s own design team.

Guido finished 80th in his own contest. Crimmins finished 103rd. Both will be seeking redemption this time around.

There might even be some trash talking involved. Guido said listeners to the long-running, monthly Southwest Climate Podcast he does with Crimmins and McMahan can expect to hear some “banter” about the contest and the leaderboard in the coming months.

“The game is a way to channel our excitement,” said Crimmins in a written statement. “We can’t control the monsoon, so this is the closest we can come to (forming) a community around our anticipation. If it’s wet, we can celebrate, and if it’s dry, we can commiserate.”

Monsoon season in the Southwest officially begins on June 15 and lasts through September.

Last year, Tucson enjoyed its third-wettest monsoon on record, with 12.79 inches of rain. Just over 8 inches fell in July alone, the most rain Tucson has recorded in a single month for the past 126 years at least.

The bonanza in 2021 followed a near total bust in 2020, when the driest monsoon on record in the Southwest pushed Tucson’s rainfall total for the year to a new record low of just 4.17 inches.

Professional forecasters largely missed the boat on both extreme events.

“There are so many things that influence the monsoon,” Guido said, making it difficult to predict, especially here at the northern fringes of the phenomenon.

“It’s not an easy thing to forecast,” he said.

In May, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center predicted a slightly more active-than-average start to the monsoon for the southern half of Arizona.

Guido is also betting on above-average moisture early on, but he expects the rainfall to taper off in August and September.

“I’m bullish on a wet early part of the season, and I’m not bullish on a wet latter part of the season,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong. I hope it beats last year. I hope it’s a record-setting July and August and it keeps on going.”

The weather forecast for Tucson heading into this weekend included thunderstorm chances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Guido is hoping that “little bit of a tease” gets people excited for both the upcoming monsoon season and the contest.

“Hopefully it’s a harbinger of things to come,” he said.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@tucson.com or 573-4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean


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