Coarse climate classifications label Arizona as a hot, mid-latitude to subtropical desert. Yet a drive around the state will reveal a great deal of variability in precipitation and temperature patterns that are the result of complex topography. Elevations within the state of Arizona range from 70’ at the Colorado River in Yuma to 12,633’ at the peak of Mt. Humphreys, northwest of Flagstaff. This dramatic variability in topography and geographic position results in a range of temperature and precipitation conditions that are equivalent to the range found between Mexico and Canada, all in one state!
Elevation Drives Patterns in Temperature
You may have observed that temperatures vary with elevation across Arizona: at higher elevations, temperatures are cooler than in low valleys. Temperature decreases with elevation at a rate of approximately 3.5 oF per 1000’ (6.5 oC per 1000 m). Therefore, cities at higher elevations experience cooler temperatures than cities at lower elevations. This interactive map of temperatures in Colorado depicts this pattern. The relationship between elevation and temperature at these cities in Colorado is clear.
As you can see from the interactive graph of elevation and temperature in Colorado, the relationship between temperature and elevation is strong. In general, the higher you climb in elevation, the lower the average temperature. The main reason for this is that with increasing elevation, the atmosphere becomes less dense. That is, the air molecules comprising the atmosphere are more spread out and move more slowly, resulting in cooler overall temperatures.
The map of annual average temperatures in Arizona to the right demonstrates the relationship between elevation and temperature. Compare this map with the map of elevation above; the coolest temperatures generally occur in the regions of the state with the highest elevations. Conversely, the warmest average temperatures occur at the lowest elevations.