Mad about the weather

A conversation with two long-time HCN readers in Tucson.


Since 1971, reader contributions to the Research Fund have made it possible for HCN to investigate and report on the 1 million-square-mile West's natural resources, public lands, wildlife, politics, culture and communities. Your gift to the Research Fund directly supports thought-provoking, independent news and commentary that you won't find anywhere else. HCN publisher and executive director recently caught up with two donors in Tucson, Ariz.

When Bob Maddox and Kate Hirschboek sit down to discuss the weather over morning coffee at their comfortable Tucson, Ariz., home, the conversation delves a bit deeper than "looks like it might rain today." Maddox, a retired veteran of the National Weather Service, has spent a career predicting weather in places as varied as the Midwestern tornado belt and the flood-prone canyons along Colorado's Front Range. Hirschboek works for the Arizona Tree Ring Lab at the University of Arizona, where she and other climate scientists model how drought and flooding will change in an era of climate change.

On a sunny day earlier this year, the couple effortlessly lob back and forth their thoughts on Arizona's monsoon season. Hirschboek says that it is not yet clear how warming temperatures will influence the monsoons, which provide critical water for the Southwest during the blazing summer months. "Generally we think that flooding will get more severe, but it's hard to predict the intervals," she says with the careful phrasing of a scientist. Maddox is a little more blunt: The monsoons have already weakened over their northern range, he says, and, without them, Tucson will face a water crisis ahead of all other cities in the West because it lacks the political clout of a Phoenix or Las Vegas. "There will be an outmigration of people," he predicts.

Maddox's interpretation of Southwest weather, climate and whatever else strikes his fancy can be found on his daily blog, madweather. The site features an amazing array of maps, photos, charts and links to scientific studies – rigorous enough for the professional meteorologist, but delivered with a casual style understandable to the lay weather buff.

HCN readers, climatologist Kate Hirschboek and retired National Weather Service employee Bob Maddox.

Those are also qualities he values in High Country News, whether the story is about climate change or Western culture. Senior editor Ray Ring wrote about his late brother’s struggle with mental illness (My Crazy Brother, March 31, 2008) in Arizona, a story that hit a particularly close to home. Maddox’s son has also been diagnosed with mental illness, and, like Ray, Maddox has found the services the state provides for this population to be grossly insufficient. “Ray and I emailed back and forth. I really appreciated that HCN addressed this issue,” he says.

Maddox is a bibliophile and frequently references books and journal articles in his blogging. In a recent post he notes that a 1986 Tony Hillerman novel (Skinwalker) mentions the onset of the "monsoons," and wonders who first used the term. He tracks down a 1949 article from the Annals of the Association of American Geographers by one Ronald L. Ives, who not only mentions the "monsoon," but also has this to say about the Sonoran Desert's famed "dry heat": "Because of low relative humidities, sensible temperatures are tolerable, and complaints of summer season discomfort are heard largely from the obese, alcoholic, and neurotic components of the population."

These days, Maddox travels with his wife to attend climate conferences, but while she presents papers, he often slips out the door to scour used bookstores for early edition books, with a focus on western novels set in the West. He and Hirschboek have converted their garage into a library and storefront for their book trading and selling enterprise, Squid Ink Books. Walking through the clean, metal stacks stuffed with books, Maddox tells of the time he found a signed, first-edition Cormac McCarthy for $12 in a Tucson bookstore. "I sold it for $2,000." Maddox carefully pulls out a hardback covered in plastic: It's an early Elmore Leonard, The Law at Rendado.  "I'll bet you didn't know that he wrote westerns before he settled on the crime beat," he says. How much would he need to part with it? A cool $3,500. Not bad for a hot day in Tucson.

Paul Larmer is the publisher and executive director of High Country News.

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