In late August we completed a decade living in Seattle. I never thought we would stay here that long, so this indicates that the place has been generally nice to us. Our kids see this as home, but we are still a bit disoriented. Among other things, the local weather kinda makes us feel not quite natural.
See, where we come from (Israel-Palestine) there are 320 sunny days a year, give or take a few. Summer lasts forever, while winter and spring are short and intense. To be more precise, the Levantine "winter" would not count as winter in other temperate zones of the world. But it can still whip up a violent rainstorm, occasionally even snow in the mountains.
All this is a far cry from the mildness, drizzle and perennially gray skies of America's "Latte Capital."
However, seems like even long-term Seattle locals are quite disoriented these days. The local weather has gone a bit loco over the past decade - and this, in a place that according to many models stands to suffer very minor impacts from global warming compared with other parts of the world.
Specifically, at the very same week we marked our first decade in Seattle, the city jotted down its first-ever calendar month with zero (0) precipitation.
Follow me below the squiggly for a partial list of extreme-weather records we have witnessed first-hand in our 10 years here.
Seattle's dry streak has now lasted 6 weeks (link to University of Washington fabulous weather data site), since July 21 or 22 depends on how you count. With no rain forecast until late next weekend, the streak will likely last well beyond 45 days to become the second-longest in recorded history. The longest streak was a 51-day mammoth (relative to Seattle, that is) from 1951. But the comparison might not be fair, because back then the rain gauges might have been less sensitive and could have missed, say, a streak-ending 0.02" drizzle that can be measured today.
Interestingly (for outsiders, at least), this streak still does not count as drought in Seattle, because summers here, esp. mid-July to mid-September are dry in general. The water situation depends mostly upon rain and mountain snow from October through June.
One thing's for sure: complete bone-dryness like we are experiencing right now, definitely qualifies as "extreme weather" for Seattle. And like elsewhere around the world, we've had our share. Here's what we have observed (probably a partial list):
- The hottest Seattle day ever in July 2009. This 103-degree day broke the previous record by 3 degrees, and was part of a record 6-day streak of 90-plus degrees.
- In between the sizzling summers of 2009 and 2012, the summer of 2010 was completely MIA, and 2011 seemed to begin even worse. It took until May 20 to first cross 70 degrees, and until mid-August we had logged only a few short midday blips of 80-plus degree weather. Then late August to mid-September made up for it with a series of heat waves that laid July to shame. I cannot find a ref right now, but I'm pretty sure this was the hottest September on record.
So of the last 4 summers, none have been "ordinary", not by a long shot. In addition,
- Summer 2003 was also unusually warm and dry, causing wildfires to rage throughout the Pacific Northwest (this year, too, there were some damaging wildfires in the Cascades).
How about the rainy season?
- I got quite wet on what turned out to be the rainiest day in Seattle history, in October 2003. For some silly reason I decided to extend my walk to the University that morning. By the time I got into class, all the student papers I was supposed to hand out were soaked. The total for the day was around 5.8" (140mm), and it beat the previous record by a good 2". Yes, 100mm days are a rarity in Seattle, where drizzles are the norm.
- If I am not mistaken, several more days among the top 5 rainiest ones also occurred during this past decade, including torrential 3-day storms in the falls of 2006 and 2007 that closed Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Olympia.
- From December 2005 to January 2006, there was a record-tying rainy-day streak (something like 30 days in a row). It ended on the day our youngest son was born ;)
- In December 2006, a 1.5" rainstorm was accompanied by a near-hurricane-force windstorm that knocked off power to 100,000s of homes and caused several deaths. We were without power for four days and had to evacuate.
- For three weeks between December 2008 and January 2009, several consecutive snow events piled up on each other. Even in our home which was not the snowiest part of town, it eventually accumulated to about a foot and a half. The city, accustomed to at most an annual dusting of snow, was shut down much of the time.
- The winter of 2010-11 saw a major snowstorm (nearly a foot, as far as I can recall) come very early in the season, right before Thanksgiving. The city... was shut down.
- Then, this January (2012) markedthe single snowiest recorded day in Seattle history. The city? You know the rest.
- On the other extreme, winter 2004/5 was declared an official drought, and included the longest-ever winter dry-day streak. I remember that streak - it took place during the kids' school break in February. We used it to go to the Western Olympic Peninsula - the rainiest place in continental US, during the height of the rainy season. We were there four days without a cloud in the sky.
To sum it up, Seattle's weather has not been its usual self. It vacillates between wanting to be more Mediterranean like California to the south, or more Arctic like Canada and Alaska to the north. Exactly the "loaded climate dice" mentioned by Hansen et al. (pdf).
And Seattle still has it easy. It's nothing like what Oklahoma or the Gulf Coast have been experiencing. But it has still been substantial enough to affect our life here.
Meanwhile, what's going on in our old country? Scorching bone-dry summers are the norm in Israel-Palestine. But I am willing to testify, that heat waves in February and December, like we are hearing about now from our families and friends, never happened between say 1970 and the mid-2000s, and probably not before that. Now these winter heat waves are an annual occurrence. One heat wave in December 2010 caused a chain of deadly wildfires that shut much of the country down. The 2000's also saw a couple of small tornadoes there, the first ever recorded. In fact, the first one had the temerity to blaze through our very own back yard, shredding garden equipment and yanking out several dozen roof shingles. That happened in spring 2002, a few months before we left.
In short, yes my friends, global warming is fast becoming an everyday experience from which none of us can escape even as some of us continue to deny it. What we can - and should do - is act to reduce our contribution to it.
More on that later...
Meanwhile, on a subliminal level I must admit I enjoy this dry spell. In my bones, it just feels like back home, where 4-5 hot/warm months without a drop of rain are the norm.
[ If you are a Seattle-area local, feel free to remind me of any recent extreme-weather events I've forgotten. I'm sure there are more. ]
------- Saturday UPDATE, for posterity's sake: -----------
Seattle's dry streak is now at day 48 or 49, and a heat wave yesterday and today (90 and a forecast of 87, respectively) is putting a cherry on top of it. However, rain is strongly in the forecast for early Monday morning - which would cut the streak just short of tying the 1951 record. If that rain event somehow misses Seattle, there's no other rain forecast for the rest of the week. Regardless, clearly our present streak is a once-in-60-years type event, maybe even once-in-a-century.
I wanted to correct two errors from above: the 2004/5 winter dry streak and the 2005/6 winter wet streak were both second longest, not longest or tied for first. On the other hand, I didn't realize that the non-existent 2010 summer included a record-tying wet streak. All these corrections are thanks to local weatherman Scott Sistek, who last week showed in his blog an image of an official paper record book from 1998 which he keeps updating by hand. The pages the image show the top ten entries for 4 records: dry and wet streak for summer and winter, respectively.
Another thing evident from the image is that the past decade has been busy changing the very top of these lists. True, we do not break all 4 records every year, but this decade is still one where meaningful, long-term weather records (unlike daily records which are less meaningful) are broken more often than usual.
To sum it up, in 10 years we've had:
- the hottest day ever, beating the previous one by 3 degrees;
- the rainiest day ever, again shattering the previous record by >2", as well as several other entries in the all-time top 5 - each from a different year in the decade;
- the snowiest day on record, as well as several multi-day events that were at least rare, if not record-breaking;
- and last but not least, dry and wet streaks of the type that occurs once in 2 generations, or had never happened before.
The only type of record missing from this list is low-temperature records. This is quite compatible with a global-warming scenario.
So yes, to address some comments: even Seatte's relatively-freaky recent weather is orders of magnitude more bearable than what happens elsewhere. But that's exactly what causes many local old-timers to miss the fact that weather patterns here are becoming more unusual, and generally reflecting higher levels and more intense spurts of heat energy. We are like the proverbial frog in the gradually-warming water, who never feels the change until it is too late.
Now, let's see if the dry streak does the impossible and pulls through past 51 days...