following weather essays are weather columns written by weather
columnist Vince Streano for the Anacortes American.
Banana Belt or Rain Shadow?
Copyright Vince Streano, 1999
Nestled within the Olympic rain shadow, just west of the Cascade mountain range, Anacortes enjoys unusually mild weather for a community that shares its latitude with Newfoundland. Described by many as the banana belt of Western Washington, the area has mild winters, an exceptionally long spring, and summers that end too soon. Since I haven't seen a banana tree since moving here, I prefer to describe our weather as mild because of the influence of the Olympic rain shadow.
When my wife and I moved here in March of 1989 from Southern California, we were gloriously ignorant to the sudden mood swings our weather can exhibit. In Southern California the weather is extremely predictable, bordering on boring. The rainy season is from November to March, and it's sunny and warm the rest of the time. Before we moved our friends kept asking how can you move to someplace where it rains all the time?
Our first summer here it seemed as if the weather was trying to break us in gently as we had endless days of sunshine and mild temperatures. We scheduled an outdoor house warming party for the first week in May, and thought nothing unusual when the day dawned warm and sunny. In fact the most difficult part of our indoctrination was getting used to 16 hours of sunlight. In California we always got up at sunrise, here we have to put blankets over our windows so we can sleep till 6 am.
Our second winter, the winter of 1990 was our wake-up call. At 4:30 AM on December 27, I was at the kitchen sink for a glass of water, when suddenly the sky flashed bright green, and the power went dead. Normally this wouldn't be of major concern, except it was 7 degrees outside and we had an electric furnace. For the next 56 hours our energies went into stocking the wood stove and the fireplace. With 100+ mile per hour winds howling across the island pushing over trees at an alarming rate, I knew this would be a storm to remember.
My interest in weather and weather statistics began after my wife gave me a weather station for Christmas in 1992. After carefully installing all the recording sensors around my house, I was able to tell exactly what the weather was doing. I could monitor the wind speed and wind direction, the temperature both inside and outside, the rainfall total, the chill factor and the humidity. However I soon realized my new weather station couldn't tell me the one thing everyone kept asking. How much sunshine do we have? So each evening before bed, I dutifully recorded the weather statistics for the day, and added the percentage of sunshine we had for that day. Of course this was a subjective decision on my part, put it did give me a starting point for my sun statistics. After a while I devised a system for reporting the sun. If the sun is out less than 25% during the day, I rate the day as overcast. If the percentage is between 25% and 75%, I categorize the day as partly sunny. Anything over 75% is sunny.
After ten years of keeping statistics, I'm beginning to get a handle on our often fickle weather patterns. Actually in the big picture our weather is very predictable, and easy to describe. Winter almost always begins the first week in November. November and December are our wettest months, averaging 3.72 and 3.78 of rain respectively. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing during this time, and snow is rare averaging less than an inch in each of those months. These two months are also the grayest with an average of seven sunny days each.
Even though January is statistically the coldest month of the year for Anacortes, I feel that by mid month, the worst of winter is over. The days are getting longer, and with the colder temperatures, the skies are clearing and we begin getting more sunny days. Where we averaged only seven days in November and December, the January average is nine.
February is the beginning of spring. The Daffodils are pushing up through the ground, the trees are beginning to bud, and the temperatures are warming up. Spring in Anacortes seems to last forever. And it does. It usually goes to mid July. During this period of time it seems as if the weather is constantly playing games. One day will be bright and clear, with temperatures in the 70's. Alright you think, summer is here. Then you wake up the next day and the rain is pounding on the roof and it is so cold and gloomy you decide to start a fire in the fireplace.
Summer begins the second week in July. In the 16 years I've lived here, there have only been three 4th of July holidays that were warm and sunny. So summer in Anacortes officially begins after the July 4th holiday. Anacortes is the best place in the United States to spend summer. Temperatures almost never exceed 80 degrees, the days are long and mild, and there is virtually no humidity. I don't understand why people who live here would want to go anywhere else during the summer months.
Fall is our shortest season, lasting only six weeks from mid-September to November. Fall weather is somewhat like Spring, only with a sharper chill to the air. Even on the sunny days, you know winter lurks just around the corner.
All in all our weather is relatively mild. We don't have hurricanes, floods or tornadoes. It rarely freezes, and what snow we have sticks around just long enough to be enjoyed.
As for that most important question, how much sun do we have? I can now say that on average 135 days a year are sunny, and another 90 days are partly sunny. This means almost two thirds of our days have sunshine. So now when anyone from outside Washington asks how can you live somewhere where it rains all the time, I simply smile and say we don't mind the rain, we're really happy here.
First Snow Fall
Copyright Vince Streano, 2005
So, there I was Thursday morning, the first day of December, waiting for the first snowflakes to fall like a kid waiting for Santa to drop down the chimney. The National Weather Service had predicted snow for late in the afternoon, but I was hoping it would come earlier, so I could take pictures. By 10 AM the skies to the north were almost black. Overhead the clouds were heavy with moisture and the color of pewter. I checked the radar and could see the beginnings of snow falling to the north and west of Fidalgo Island.
Just after 10:30 the first flakes began to fall. Tiny little flakes you could barely see. Gradually they got larger, and larger, until the flakes were the size of half dollars, floating gracefully to the ground. I was awestruck by the beauty of what I was seeing. I was afraid it might be a brief flurry with a sudden ending, but the snowfall kept getting heavier. My weather station said the temperature was 36 degrees, which explained why the flakes weren't yet sticking on the ground. After twenty minutes of what I would call heavy snowfall, I called the National Weather Service on the Weather Spotter hotline to report what I was seeing. They were surprised it was already snowing in our area. The forecaster asked me the temperature and the dew point, and thanked me for the update.
Puget Sound Convergence Zone
Copyright Vince Streano, 2004
Has this ever happened to you? You get in your car on a bright sunny morning for a drive to Seattle. The weather is great, and you're looking forward to an easy drive down I-5. As you progress south on the freeway, the weather ahead looks a little gray. Around Smokey Point the clouds begin to thicken. Then you get to Everett and the weather changes to a pounding rain. What happened? It's almost like you entered a parallel universe. Everything looks the same, except the weather. Then, about fifteen miles further down the road, the universe shifts back, the sun is shining, and everything is back to normal.
What happened is that you entered the dreaded Puget Sound Convergence Zone. Florida has its Hurricanes, Oklahoma has its Tornadoes, and we have our convergence zones. The PSCZ is the most consistent, and produces many fascinating weather phenomenon. I've often wondered how convergence zones are formed, and what causes them.
Copyright Vince Streano, 2002
Keeping weather statistics is both a curse and a joy. A curse because you have to be compulsive about faithfully entering the records at the end of each day. If I take a trip, I have to find someone I can trust to record the records for me until my return. It's a joy when I can look back over the records and begin to discern patterns and anomalies that crop up throughout the years.
As we begin our summer season I thought it might be interesting to go back through my records and try to predict when it might be sunny and when it might rain, based on my records for the past five years. I was surprised at a number of facts I discovered while doing my research.
Umbrellas In Anacortes
Copyright Vince Streano, 2001
I was walking around downtown Anacortes the other day in a pouring rainstorm. Suddenly it dawned on me. No one was carrying an umbrella! Over the next couple of days whenever I went to town in the rain, which was most days, I did a mental umbrella survey. I still haven't seen one. What is it with Anacortes residents disdain for the bumbershoot? Personally I don't carry one either. Usually the rain isn't that hard, and a hat and jacket keeps me relatively dry. But lately it's been raining cats and dogs, and still no umbrellas. Maybe it's a macho thing. Are Anacortes residents too tough for umbrellas?
Since November and December are historically the wettest months of the year, you'll probably be seeing a lot more damp residents traipsing around town as they try to complete their holiday errands. This brings up the old argument of whether you stay dryer by walking or running in the rain? In an effort to keep our holiday shoppers as dry as possible, I've done a little research on the subject that I think you'll find interesting.
Fidalgo Island Micro Climates
Copyright Vince Streano, 2001
The first tendrils of fog came slithering through Deception pass like a giant octopus searching the seabed. The fog crept along the northern edge of Whidbey Island, flowed over the water until it reached Skagit Island, then retreated back to the pass. Eventually it dissipated altogether leaving behind a brilliant sunny day.
As I sat watching the fogs advances and retreats, I knew that while I was basking in bright sunshine residents on the west side of the island were shivering in the fog. That got me thinking about the various micro climates we have here on Fidalgo Island.