Why Is the Pacific Northwest So Rainy?

iStock
iStock

The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the United States, but that greenery comes at a cost. It rains in the Pacific Northwest, and it rains a lot. Despite the gorgeous landscapes and cosmopolitan cities, the western parts of Washington and Oregon get a bad rap for how gray and dismal they can be. But why exactly does it rain so much in the Pacific Northwest?

The reason gloomy weather is so common boils down to prevailing weather patterns and the unique terrain that makes this part of the world so gorgeous. This stretch of land between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, usually finds itself directly under the track of the jet stream. The jet stream is a fast-moving river of air that encircles the Northern Hemisphere right around the latitude of the U.S.-Canadian border.

Whenever the jet stream swoops to the south, creating a trough, it can generate low-pressure systems at the surface that produce heavy rain and high winds. These troughs and resulting low-pressure systems often intensify in the Gulf of Alaska and over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington, allowing large storms to crash into the coast with ease. Most of these storms are run-of-the-mill rainmakers, lasting for a day or two before moving on, but some of them can be enormous and cause significant wind damage and flooding.

While the photogenic low-pressure systems that swirl into the coast are the driving force behind the Pacific Northwest’s seemingly endless rains, it’s the region’s terrain that locks in those dismal weather conditions. When moist winds blow inland with an approaching storm, the high terrain of the Cascade Range forces the moist air to rise into the atmosphere, enhancing the thick clouds and steady rainfall.

Rain clouds over Pacific Northwest
Cloudy skies over the Pacific Northwest on May 16, 2017.

Even though it rains quite a bit along the northwestern coast, actual rainfall totals in the Pacific Northwest vary wildly from place to place due to changes in elevation. Some spots at high elevation right along the coast or along the Cascade Range can see more than 10 feet of precipitation in a single year, accounting for both rain and the equivalent amount of liquid in snowfall.

Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, each only see around 36 inches of rain every year, which hardly makes these bustling metro areas the wettest in the country. Compare their rainfall totals to New York City’s Central Park, which measures nearly 50 inches of rain every year, and Mobile, Alabama, commonly one of the wettest cities in the United States; its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico gives it nearly 66 inches of rain every year.

The rain that does fall in Seattle and Portland, though, falls over a longer period of time. Between 1981 and 2010, both cities saw a little more than 150 days with measurable precipitation per year, compared to about 122 rainy days in New York City and just 115 in Mobile. This accounts for the Northwest’s reputation as the gloomiest part of the country—but makes for spectacularly green landscapes when the skies clear out.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

A Simple Trick for Defrosting Your Windshield in Less Than 60 Seconds

iStock
iStock

As beautiful as a winter snowfall can be, the white stuff is certainly not without its irritations—especially if you have to get into your car and go somewhere. As if shoveling a path to the driver’s door wasn’t enough, then you’ve got a frozen windshield with which to contend. Everyone has his or her own tricks for warming up a car in record time—including appropriately-named meteorologist Ken Weathers, who works at WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A while back, Weathers shared a homemade trick for defrosting your windshield in less than 60 seconds: spray the glass with a simple solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. “The reason why this works,” according to Weathers, “is [that] rubbing alcohol has a freezing point of 128 degrees below freezing.”

Watch the spray in action below.

[h/t: Travel + Leisure]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER