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David Laskin - Rains All the Time

Chapter 1 - An Introduction to Northwest Weather

p. 3: "O! how horriable is the day," wrote William Clark in his journal as the members of the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1805-06 near the Washington coast. The author describes the genre of dreary accounts of depressing weather that began with Lewis and Clark and continue to this day.

p. 4: The author notes a sub-genre of amazed reports by newcomers and visitors surprised that Northwest weather isn't as bad as its reputation.

p. 5: There is an evolving sub-sub-genre of "natives issuing dire (and exaggerated) climatic warnings to scare off would-be settlers." The author concludes, "So we've come full circle: from pioneers in the 1840s and 1850s earnestly trying (and failing) to persuade the folks back East that the Northwest has 'the most equable and healthful climate on the globe' to their descendants in the 1990s earnestly insisting that the rumors are true--it's every bit as bad as you always heard it was. And then some."

p. 6: The author describes the geographic variation in Northwest weather, from the Olympic rainforest where 250 inches may fall in a year, to the rain shadow at Sequim, 50 miles away, with an average of 16 inches a year. His first impression of the Cascade rain shadow was formed when he dozed off riding along the North Cascades Highway: "My eyes closed on Switzerland and blinked open on Arizona."

p. 10: Sixty-five percent of the rainfall during the year falls in the five months between October and February. Fifty percent falls from November through January alone.

p. 15: "Most of the time our climate is sober, mild-mannered, regular, undemonstrative."

p. 17: The author observes that Northwest weather inspires clandestine pride among the natives. "It's what we're known for, a regional specialty like Florida oranges or New York attitude, so we might as well revel in it."

Chapter 2 - Weather In the Age of Exploration

p. 25: In June 1579, Francis Drake sailed up the Northwest coast, reporting "extreame and nipping cold" with "vile, thicke, and stinking fogges." The author suggests (p. 28) that the Little Ice Age, between 1430 and 1850, may help explain the unusually harsh weather encountered in the summer of 1579.

p. 30: In March 1778, James Cook sailed farther up the coast, remarking at "moderate and mild weather," in contrast to Drake's dire report. However, "thick and hazy" conditions contributed to his failure to discover either the Columbia River or the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

p. 34: In the spring of 1792, George Vancouver, a midshipman on Cook's voyage, entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca and thoroughly explored Puget Sound. Vancouver was the first European to praise Northwest weather, describing its "delightful serenity" and calling the landscape "the most lovely country that can be imagined."

p. 40: Lewis and Clark were the first to document the rainy season when they spent the winter of 1805-06 near the mouth of the Columbia River. "Wet cold and disagreeable" was how they described it. The weather remained bad for five soggy months. The author notes that their journals, first published in 1814, "lodged the Northwest 'bad season' firmly in the public's mind."


p. 47: Summer in the Puget Sound region is characterized by stable high pressure over the north Pacific, northwest breezes, moderate temperatures, and low humidity.

p. 48: Of the heat in eastern Washington, the author writes, "The air was dry but strangely heavy; it felt as if you'd need an oar to paddle through it."

p. 50: An atmospheric researcher recently confessed to the Seattle Times, "I'm always kind of depressed when it stops raining. The summer is actually quite monotonous."

p. 55: The balmy Septembers of the 1980s and early 90s were an anomaly, perhaps related to an unusually persistent El Nino. Yet residents now take them for granted. "People don't have any memory, meteorologically," observed weather historian David Ludlum.

Chapter 3 - Settling in With the Weather

p. 56: This chapter describes the impressions of early settlers.

p. 70: Describing Mt Rainier, Theodore Winthrop wrote in The Canoe and the Saddle: "I looked westward, and saw a sunlit mass of white, high up among the black clouds, and baseless but for them. It would have seemed itself a cloud, but, while the dark volumes were heaving and shifting about it, this was permanent. While I looked, the mountain and the sun became evident victors; the glooms fell away, were scattered and scourged into nothingness, and the snow-peak stood forth majestic, the sole arbiter of this realm."

p. 75: In the 1860s, a Dr. Price, after eduring three dry years in southern California, returned to Olympia and greeted the dripping sky, "Thank God, I am once more in a country where it rains!"

p. 83: The author notes, "We've entered a kind of reverse booster phase meteorologically...a deliberate, calculated plan of climatic obfuscation designed to keep people away."


p. 85: Commenting on the rainy season, the author observes, "Maybe the key word here is not rainy but season: we notice our rain more because of its concentration.

p. 87: Compared to other regions of the country, autumn in the Northwest lacks crispness. Tom Robbins captured its essence in his novel, Another Roadside Attraction: "October lies on the Skagit like a wet rag on a salad."

p. 88: The author relates various people's reactions to the depression of autumn rains. Seattle Times columnist Terry McDermott recently wrote, "Our rain is a relative you thought you knew until the day he showed up on your doorstep. He came in for the night, stayed through the weekend... Eventually, it dawns on you, he's taken over your life."

p. 90: "Climatologists now speculate that weather in the Northwest, especially autumn and winter weather, runs in decadal cycles--kind of like the Biblical seven lean years and seven fat years." From 1976 through 1994, Seattle had below normal precipitation. We may now be entering a wet period.

p. 91: Wind storms are a regular feature of autumn weather. The author describes the 1962 Columbus Day storm and similar storms in 1934 and 1995. Autumns freezes are more rare. The worst occurred in November 1955, when temperatures fell as low as 6 degrees Fahrenheit west of the Cascades and -19 to the east.

Chapter 4 - Scientists' Weather

p. 95: This chapter describes scientific interpretations of the weather over the years. The author notes that far from being merely cool, objective observers, Northwest meteorologists have sometimes become "as impassioned as poets."

p. 96: Northwest climate has long fascinated weather scientists, perhaps because it is so different from what they expected it to be. The author describes pseudoscientific explanations offered over the years to explain our mild climate. Civic boosters have also promoted Northwest weather as uniquely healthy and conducive to the development of "progressive and energetic men and women." The latter was claimed by Erwin L. Weber in 1924 in a pamphlet titled, In the Zone of Filtered Sunshine: Why the Pacific Northwest is Destined to Dominate the Commercial World.

p. 105: Several scientists have tried to dispell the region's reputation for ceaseless rain, including Beamer Pague and Adolphus Greely in the 1880s. More recently Phil Church noted that almost three-quarters of Seattle's precipitation takes the form of drizzle, while less than two percent is heavy rain. The author notes that, "It's hard to understand how 'the curse of excessive rainfall' could ever recover from this death blow--but such is the phoenixlike power of a bad meteorological reputation."

p. 114: The author describes forecasting efforts from the days of the telegraph to modern computer models. Cliff Mass at the U.W. published the seminal paper on the Puget Sound convergence zone in 1981. Convergence zones are orographically produced, most common in spring and early summer, and typically form between Seattle and Everett.

p. 118: Modern forecasting tools proved themselves during the windstorm of December 12, 1995, the most intense autumn windstorm since the Columbus Day storm of 1962. Forecasters predicted the storm two days ahead of time and issued a warning twenty-four hours in advance.

p. 122: It's still too soon to know whether severe weather the past few years is related to global warming.

p. 123: Pacific Northwest climate is subject to long cyclical swings between a cold-wet regime and a warm-dry regime. As noted by John Wallace of the University of Washington, "The swings have been large enough to impact how good fishing is and how good skiing has been, large enough to color the way people would view the climate of this region, especially in winter."

Over the past eighty years, as long as the records go back, the cycles have run from twenty to thirty years in length. The period from 1925 to 1943 was warm and dry. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, we had record-setting snows and record cold temperatures. From 1977 through the mid-1990s, it has been warm and relatively dry in winter, bad for skiing.

From the standpoint of this project, these climactic cycles correspond remarkably well with the phases of ski mountaineering development in Washington. The pre-WWII "golden age" was warm and dry, favorable for pioneering ascents of the major peaks, ski scouting, and organized events like the Silver Skis races. The post-war period, when downhill skiing boomed but ski mountaineering languished, had cool, wet weather good for skiing, but poor for mountaineering. Finally, the "renaissance" of ski mountaineering that began in the late 1970s was accompanied by warmer, drier weather favorable for backcountry pioneering.

p. 125: The author quotes Nathan Mantua of the U.W.: "'Normal,' to me, is not average. Actually, 'normal' in this region is when the climate is in one of these extreme states."


p. 131: Referring to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) the author writes, "The combination of low light, low pressure, and dripping clouds results in a collective regional bummer." He continues, "Yes, winter is damp and gray, but most of the time the weather is not nearly as bad or monotonous as we make it out to be."

p. 140: Despite the region's reputation for wet, mild winters, cold snaps are an integral part of the Pacific Northwest's climate. A string of especially bitter winters occurred in the mid-1800s.

p. 143: The author describes epic snowfalls in the Cascades, including the 1,122 inches measured at Paradise in 1971-72 and the national twenty-four-hour record in 1994, when more than 70 inches fell from February 23 to 24.

Chapter 5 - Writers' Weather

p. 150: This chapter describes weather in Northwest literature. The author observes, "No matter what the weather was doing at the time of composition, it really does rain just about all the time in Northwest fiction... Call it meterological gothic."

p. 159: By contrast, the literature from the east side of the Cascades is all about heat and drought. "Lack of rain takes center stage as prime plot mover, suspense creator, or parched villain," the author writes.

p. 169: The author quotes a passage from Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, which "contains some of the most graphically depressing evocations of winter wet ever set in type." He writes, "This is foul weather rising to the level of myth. Weather as cosmic adversary. Weather as plague. Weather as the embodiment of everything in nature that means to thwart and mock and madden human beings."

p. 178: The author notes that after a century of writers bemoaning Northwest weather, it was inevitable that somebody would come along and sing its praises. He quotes passages from David Duncan, Tom Robbins and Sallie Tisdale. In Another Roadside Attraction, Robbins describes the start of the rainy season in the Skagit Valley: "And then the rains came... And it rained a sickness. And it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder... And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure... And it rained a fever. And it rained a silence. And it rained a sacrifice... And it rained a screaming... And it rained a disorder."

Sallie Tisdale evokes a calmer style in Stepping Westward: "There's no point in trying to stay dry. There's nowhere to walk, no place to stand. Mist clings to the hillsides like torn tissue, and when it has finally passed, a calm settles over the hills and trees--a satisfied, moistened calm. Ah, everything sighs. Aaah."


p. 186: The author describes spring in the Northwest as "our payback for autumn" though he notes that spring is characterized by "fitful, undecided weather patterns" and that it "advances and retreats erratically, chaotically, with no apparent rhyme or reason." He laments, "The heartbreak of June. June the gray, the cool, the reluctant." Northwest spring is "a quirky season."

p. 190: The author describes exceptionally wet and dry springs, noting that "normals seem to signify even less in spring than in other seasons."

p. 191: "Conventional wisdom has it that May is nicer than June west of the mountains, and there is some basis for this in meteorological fact."

p. 192: The spring floods of 1894 and 1948 had similar weather conditions: "cold wet winters, cool temperatures continuing into May, and then a sudden warming that rapidly melted deep snowpacks. The 1948 flood took more lives and destroyed far more property."

p. 197: "Here in the Northwest, the weather, God knows, is rarely perfect and often downright awful. But it's real weather...and it gives this region life and character and something to write home about."

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Last Updated: Fri Feb 28 21:56:04 PST 2003