Colder and cloudier summers in the Pacific Northwest?

August 4, 2011 at 8:30 am | In green, nature | 5 Comments

I came here for the weather. Seriously. East Coast winters (cold) and East Coast summers (Triple-H: hot hazy humid) drove me bonkers.

But global warming is making me feel a bit like Rick in Casablanca: misinformed.

Misinformed – you know, that great line where Louis asks Rick why he came to Casablanca, to which Rick replies, “for the waters.” When reminded that Casablanca is in the desert, Rick deadpans, “I was misinformed.” See the clip here:

Well, it seems global warming is going to teach all of us a lesson or two about being misinformed.

While we’re not getting that much hotter (at least not in my lifetime, it seems), extreme heat inland will cause a curious weather pattern over the ocean in our immediate vicinity: one of increased clouds and cold during our spring and summer months.

In other words, if you thought this year’s spring and summer (for the most part) have been cold and depressing, you’re absolutely right! They have.

And climatologists and weathermen have predicted it for years.

Earlier this week, KPLU, the NPR affiliate radio station in Seattle, ran this report: Seattle spring was the coldest, one of the cloudiest on record.

Listen here

Or read an extract:

Scientists have confirmed what many suspected about this year’s weather. It was the coldest spring on record for Washington and one of the cloudiest.

The average temperature for April, May and June was lower than any year since 1900, say University of Washington scientists. And the days were more cloudy than all but one year since those records began 60 years ago.

One of the weather scientists quoted is Cliff Mass, who adds, “the hotter it gets inland, the more we seem to get the sort of pattern that brings cooler air from the ocean into western Washington.” This is obviously exactly what we’re getting in British Columbia, and it seems to be happening to some extent further south as far as Northern California, too.

But get this: Cliff Mass was already telling us about this five years ago, when our spring and summers were still pretty sweet to gloat about to our Eastern brethren. Mass called it in a 2006 Seattle Times article: An even grayer Seattle from global warming?

For those harboring the guilty hope that global warming will transform Seattle into a sun lovers’ paradise on par with the Côte d’Azur, meteorologist Cliff Mass has some bad news: It might actually get cloudier.

Mass and his colleagues at the University of Washington recently completed the most detailed computer simulation ever conducted of the region’s future weather. Among the surprises was a big boost in cloud cover in March, April and May.

“The spring is going to be gunkier — if you believe this — under global warming,” he said.

Gunkier? Ohhh-kaaayyy… That’s a good way to describe it, I suppose.

What a gunkier "spring" looked like in Victoria British Columbia


In the article, Mass also predicts more heat spikes and problems relating to the water supplies (say what?, in Cascadia, land of rain and ice-pack? …Oh, wait… Ice-melt… Ice melts away…).

In other words, global warming is actually global weirding.

Overall, I’d say this part of the globe is not a bad place to be if you don’t want to die of heat in the summer. But the gloomy and cold spring (and summer up until just a week ago) wasn’t a lot of fun, either.

My money is on keeping an eye on Mass’s work, at any rate (I really like how he thinks in other areas, too). He’s taking climate modeling seriously, and clearly getting things right, as his 2006 predictions would indicate. The key is in the details, taking local terrain into account, as the Seattle Times article explained:

Earlier forecasts relied primarily on global climate models, which give a planetary view of the way temperatures will rise as global warming continues. But those models lack any detail about the mountains and inland waters that play such an important role in local weather.

So, using a global model as a starting point, Mass fine-tuned those projections with a high-resolution regional model that can distinguish topographical features down to a scale of a few miles.

“If you’re going to play the game around here, you’ve got to have the resolution to see local terrain,” he said.

Even with the university’s enormous data-processing capacity, it took two months of continuous computer runs to simulate each decade into the future. The researchers also factored in things such as changes in soil temperature, which can affect weather.

Fascinating article, props to the Seattle Times for having published it and keeping it available online.

Meanwhile, I find myself humming a line from an old Frank Sinatra song, The Lady is a Tramp: “…she’s broke but it’s ok …hates California, it’s cold and it’s damp …that’s why the lady is a tramp…”

We can sing that up here, too.


  1. And I thought you guys stole our sunshine from down here in cooler-than-usual Northern California. I have a bunch of summer clothes I never had a chance to wear yet, except for those few days I spent in Chicago.

    Comment by maria — August 4, 2011 #

  2. I don’t even need summer clothes this year. Wearing the same old same old all year long. Very boring.
    As for Bay Area weather: after I wrote my post, I thought, “hm, actually, your [Bay Area] weather could indeed be influenced mainly by La Nina (or a thousand other things!),” because Mass is specifically talking about the specifics of our local topography (I think it’s safe to say that Victoria and Seattle share many similar features, even if we are separated by a stretch of water known as the Juan de Fuca Strait). But one thing is certain: as we do here, you have incredible micro-climates in the Bay Area, with palpable differences between SF and the Valley. All of which means that modeling along the lines of what Mass is doing would be really interesting for your region, most certainly.
    But overall, we’ve had a #bummersummer all along the We(s)t Coast this year. It got so bad that I still don’t really believe it’s actually nice out now. I’m expecting a return to sweaters, jackets, and clouds any day… 😉

    Comment by Yule — August 4, 2011 #

  3. And brrrrr PS: I just let my dog out and couldn’t believe how cold the wind is out there! It’s like massive air-conditioning (courtesy of the Olympic Mountain Range?). If I went out tonight, I’d be wearing fleece. In August!

    Comment by Yule — August 4, 2011 #

  4. Strange to discuss seasonal warming and cooling and “weird” weather without mentioning the southern oscillations LaNena and ElNino which are natural phenomena that leads to extreme winters and summers not only in the NW but all over the world. It seems our weather is driven by natural phenomena and not so much by man made global warming–that theory is unraveling fast.

    Comment by Norwegianbear — August 11, 2011 #

  5. Norwegianbear, did you not read Mass’s interview and blog posts? It’s not just a general La Nina effect (about which I’ve commented often enough on my Twitter and elsewhere, believe me – we’re not completely ignorant here). It’s about the specificity of Mass’s analyses in the area of what’s happening microclimate-wise that’s so intriguing. The whole point is that there is no one-size-fits-all-this-is-how-it’s-going-to-be scenario, but rather that climate change (and you know what? who the hell cares if it’s man-made or not?, but even if it’s not, what’s wrong with cleaning up after ourselves and not using the Earth like a giant garbage dump? and what’s wrong with a different kind of economics that takes negative externalities into proper account, as opposed to counting them as pluses in the overall GDP? huh?) will have effects we haven’t even begun to account for.

    Comment by Yule — August 11, 2011 #

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