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Saturday, February 2, 2013 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m.
Washington weather is wacky, diverse
By Ron Judd
Pacific NW staff writer
FEBRUARY IN Seattle: It's dank. It's dark. It's windy. You're unhappy.
Two words: Boo and hoo. Take a number, Sparky. Line starts over there, next to the Dri-Z-Air dehumidifier products at McClendon Hardware.
There are a couple ways to look at this, and the first one is not going to help things:
It could be your own fault.
Nobody's blaming you for the weather (unless your name is Cliff Mass, and to him, we will get in a few moments). But plenty of people could, in fact, blame you for your place within it.
This is what most people don't realize about the thing that, for some trunk-rotted locals, becomes a lifelong obsession — our climate: Parts of Washington state, in contrast to its meek weather rep, experience some of the most extreme (and at other times the most mind-numbingly dreary) conditions in the Lower 48 states.
But the place we call home also has among the most starkly diverse conditions of any inhabited place on Earth, with shocking differences between spots only a half-hour's drive away.
This shines the light back on you. Your own current mental state might well be several notches closer to the shallow end of the great swimming pool of sanity simply because of where, even within the Puget Sound basin, you choose to live. And the amazing thing is that many of us, including your narrator — a native who should know better — often make life-altering choices of residence with few critical climate facts in mind, or even in hand.
WHICH BRINGS US to the second way of looking at all this: No matter how bad you think it is where you are right now, it could be a lot worse. Like, you could live in North Bend.
This actually happened once to yours truly, who as a younger, even-more-foolish man, once fell victim to the Great Lie perpetuated by real-estate hucksters in the upper Snoqualmie Valley. Truthfully, it could happen to anybody: You drive out there in the first week of September, when the sky is blue, the air is clean, birds are harmonizing, three parts, kids are blowing dandelion puffs and every front porch has a tail-thumping Labrador retriever on station.
How much is that house right there, the one with the peeled logs and the view of Mount Si? Never mind, we'll take it.
Somewhere in the back of your mind, a tiny voice of reason cries out that it won't always be this way; that the winter months might be challenging, or perhaps might even, to borrow a crude term, suck. As is your custom, you lock said tiny voice in the basement and, while there, break out the moving blankets.
So it goes. And here it comes. Probably around the second week in November. You're driving home from Seattle and the aforementioned Cliff Mass, Mr. Weather, is on the radio saying something about a "pressure gradient." Given that you at that particular moment are trying to send a fax from your smartphone, you're not really paying full attention to this. But when you crest that hill on Interstate 90 near Snoqualmie and start dropping into the upper valley, it hits you with near-hurricane force.
The wind. Not like any wind you have known. A full-force gale, blasting through this otherwise agreeable "gap" in the weather wall known as the Cascade Mountains with the urgent ferocity of the Seattle Mariners pursuing an overpriced, washed-up free-agent utility infielder. Winds of this type, topping, oh, 60 mph, occur fairly often in the upper Snoqualmie Valley (a surprise even to someone who grew up less than 20 miles downstream).
What's worse, winds of in-your-face, someone-get-me-John L. Scott ferocity, say 15 to 30 mph, seem to blow all the time in the winter in North Bend. (The same relative suction is true, reverse direction, for wind the other side of the Cascade "gap" in Cle Elum and Ellensburg.)
Over time, you adapt, employing survival tricks passed on by locals and learned from experience, mostly bad. Before you know it, you, like your neighbors, instinctively park your pickup nose into the wind at Safeway or the downtown outlet mall, or risk seeing your door literally ripped from its hinges once it's opened a crack.
Did we mention rain? Buckets of rain, sideways rain. While the "Emerald City" mopes around in its measly 37 inches of annual precipitation, the people of some Godforsaken lands around North Bend literally rot away in 80-plus. All of this less than a half-hour's drive from downtown Seattle, which, for all you musty urbanites, suddenly doesn't seem so bad, does it?
And this is the point. The same extreme weather deviation — in rainfall, if not wind — is present all along the western Cascade foothills, in many burgeoning once-rural and now suburban communities up and down Puget Sound. The closer you are to them, the wetter you get. And the more you have yourself to blame.
You live. You learn. You dry out your stuff. And you either dig in, tarp up and grit your teeth or you do what I did: move on.
THAT VERY WEATHER schizophrenia is what makes the Northwest ... well, special, climate-wise, says the aforementioned Mr. Mass, a University of Washington climatologist who often gives talks on that very subject, usually to the surprise of onlookers.
For starters, few people realize how harsh Northwest weather can be, Mass notes. The 1962 Columbus Day windstorm, which created coastal wind gusts upwards of 150 mph, with 100 mph blasts across Puget Sound, was among the most violent storms ever to strike the nation. A lesser version just this past November delivered rain and wind to Southwest Washington that rivaled the already legendary Hurricane Sandy, yet this hardly drew notice on the East Coast — around which, as everyone knows, the planet revolves.
But even our "normal" weather is remarkable in its distinct variations.
"The sharp contrasts are the signature of our region," Mass says.
Even in a town that produces weather-obsessed TV journos who will wait, tongues out, for the first flakes of snow on Queen Anne Hill every November, few locals realize how sharp those contrasts are, Mass believes. We can take some solace in understanding that it has always been so. The first local fools to put down a foundation in a decidedly stupid place? Meriwether Lewis and his tagalong friend, Clark.
"They show up here (in 1806), and where do they build their camp for the winter? Astoria!" Mass says of the famous explorers, who arrived during one of those classic Northwest winters when the sun seemed never to shine. "Bad decision. It's wet as hell there, and windy. If they had just built their camp up by Portland, or somewhere along the Willamette, it would have been a lot more pleasant."
O, the joy! Who knew? Not them. And not most people now. Thus, thousands of ill-fated journeys to places like North Bend, which Mass concedes can be a "horrible place," weather-wise.
There's an irony here: In a digital era in which climate records stretching back as far as the 1930s are available for hundreds of weather stations around the state, most people remain in the dark about localized climate because the data is not exactly in user-friendly form. Thus, even people who have a choice about where to live often overlook huge climate variations within a small region.
Yes, most people know about the more-famous famous anomalies, such as dry-as-a-bone Sequim, living glibly in the Olympic Peninsula "rain shadow" with its measly 15 inches of rain a year, while people who live a two-days' hike away on the wet side of the Olympics sometimes get hammered by 175.
But how many people know that Arlington gets 46 inches of precip a year compared to Everett's 33, or that Enumclaw is sometimes windier than the Columbia River Gorge?
Fact is, most of us who live here now are from somewhere else. And few other places in the country boast these anomalies: With a few mountain-related exceptions, climate differences from one end of an average inland state are subtle. There's little cause to worry about the weather world turning upside down from one freeway exit to the next.
Not so here. So perhaps, given that we live increasingly in a work-from-anywhere world, it's time to take a good, hard look at all this weather diversity, and just how much it shapes lives from Small Town A to Big City B, and so on.
STARE LONG enough at the reams of climate charts and some patterns in the drear stand out.
You want wet? No-brainer: The windward Olympics and Southwest Washington coast blow the rest of the state — and the nation — off the map. Forks gets an average of just under 120 inches of rain per year. More than 162 inches — that's 13.5 feet — fell there in 1997 alone. In the driest year on record in Forks, 1985, it still rained more than 71 inches, almost double the Seattle area.
That's the case for much of coastal Washington, but the Southwest Coast, in particular, wears a target on its back for severe storms. At a weather station at Cathlamet, Wahkiakum County, it rained 13.6 inches on a single day in January 1951. Many locales in the (thankfully, mostly uninhabited) southern Cascades also are frequently off the charts, holding many of the state's seasonal and single-day rainstorm marks.
It's not just quantity of rain that makes those spots peg the drear-o-meter. It's consistency. A weather station at Amanda Park, near Lake Quinault, sees measurable rain 24 days in an average December, 188 days in the average year. (The same poor town also holds the regional Pummel Award: It gets hit with more than an inch of rain an astonishing 48 days in an average year, compared to five in Seattle.)
That's not even close to the record, however: One weather station on the Long Beach Peninsula registers measurable rain 213 days out of every year, with no single month, even in summertime, averaging less than 11 wet days. Just up the coast, Forks clocks in at 212 wet days a year, no doubt prompting seasonal affective disorder counseling even for the local vamp population. (Measurable rain falls on Seattle around 150 days a year.)
As already mentioned, striking amounts of rain also dampen spirits in less-expected places, mostly on the west flanks of the Cascade Mountains, within commuting distance of downtown Seattle: Arlington gets rain 181 days a year; Cedar Lake near North Bend — the home, appropriately, of one of two City of Seattle water reservoirs — gets 191. Even Sequim gets wet an average of 122 days a year, although quantities are slight enough to keep cactus flowers growing in the Dungeness Valley.
Once again, given our state's weather proclivities, the converse is truly converse. You want sunny and dry? Try the Yakima Valley. In tiny White Swan (population: parched) on the Yakama Indian Reservation, precipitation falls only 48 days in an average year — only nine days even in a typical December. The area averages less than 9 inches of rain per year; in its wettest year on record, 1980, the total was just over 13 inches — a single day's rain a half a state away on the Olympic Peninsula.
Weather stations at other places around the state are testament to this rainfall mood-swing syndrome: Spokane averages about 18 inches a year, Walla Walla 16, Yakima 8, Richland 7, Vancouver 39, Anacortes 26, Bellingham 36, Port Angeles 25, Port Townsend 19, Sedro-Woolley 46, Tatoosh Island 77, Vashon Island 46, Orcas Island 28, Wenatchee 8.8, Ellensburg 8.5, Shelton 66, Neah Bay 114, Upper Baker River 106.
Predictably, numbers of annual cloudy days — the entire state ranks high here compared to the rest of the country — follow suit, ranging in populated places from the low 160s in Walla Walla and Yakima to 241 at Stampede Pass, with the Seattle area registering in the low 200s.
Want distinct seasons and big swings? Central and Eastern Washington beckon. Colfax, on the Palouse River in Whitman County, has a record high of 109 and a record low of -33. Ellensburg is not far behind, with a record high of 110 and low of -31. Ephrata has been as hot as 115 and as cold as -24; Yakima registers a similar range of 110 and -25, raising serious questions about that "Palm Springs of the Northwest" boast.
BY NOW, you get the picture: On a state and even regional basis, our weather really isn't "our" weather at all, as much as it is a composite of many, many different small climates, thanks mostly to the influence of the Pacific Ocean and multiple mountain ranges (if you want to delve into all the science, Mass' "The Weather of the Pacific Northwest" is an excellent, well-illustrated treatise.)
The point: If you're not finding a climate to suit your taste between Long Beach and Metaline Falls, Blaine and Walla Walla, you're simply not looking hard enough.
By all means, if you're weather sensitive, check the charts and be careful about where you put down roots — and how deep they get. Around here, the stationary can survive, but the mobile thrive. The advice from Mass and others: Stick and move, people! No weather is so bad that it cannot serve as a negative example for the observant.
Even in a place where the dramatically different is just down the road, of course, not everyone can get away, at least for good. But honestly, doesn't it make you feel better — even a little — just to know you could?
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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