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Why Is the Pacific Northwest So Rainy?

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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.

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Why Does the Sky Look Green Before a Tornado?
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A common bit of folklore from tornado-prone parts of the U.S. says that when the skies start taking on an emerald hue, it's time to run inside. But why do tornadoes tend to spawn green skies in the first place? As SciShow's Michael Aranda explains, the answer has to do with the way water droplets reflect the colors of the light spectrum.

During the day, the sky is usually blue because the shorter, bluer end of the light spectrum bounces off air molecules better than than redder, longer-wavelength light. Conditions change during the sunset (and sunrise), when sunlight has to travel through more air, and when storms are forming, which means there are more water droplets around.

Tornadoes forming later in the day, around sunset, do a great job of reflecting the green part of the light spectrum that's usually hidden in a sunset because of the water droplets in the clouds, which bounce green light into our eyes. But that doesn't necessarily mean a twister is coming—it could just mean a lot of rain is in the forecast. Either way, heading inside is probably a good idea.

For the full details on how water and light conspire to turn the sky green before a storm, check out the SciShow video below.

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New Contest Will Give Kids the Chance to Become Weather Channel Meteorologists for a Day
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Not every kid dreams of being an on-air meteorologist, but for young ‘uns obsessed with storm forecasts and local weather reports, a new contest presents a unique opportunity to live out their dreams. The Mini Meteorologist Contest, sponsored by Lands’ End, will give four kids a chance to present a weather report on The Weather Channel this summer.

The nationwide contest is open to future meteorologists in the U.S. and Canada ages 6 to 16. To enter, they just have to write an essay between 50 and 500 words long on why they love learning about science and weather and why they’d like to be a meteorologist for a day. Four winners will receive a trip for them and their parents to The Weather Channel’s headquarters in Atlanta. They’ll have the opportunity to report the weather for the show on July 12, which happens to be National Summer Learning Day.

The essays will be judged based in equal parts on creativity, grammar, and the entrant’s love of meteorology. The only rules for the essays are that they can’t mention any products or brands other than Lands’ End or The Weather Channel (so no essays about how L.L. Bean inspired your love of cloud formations, kids) and has to be the child’s original work. Kids who are chosen as semi-finalists will have their on-air presentation skills judged in a Skype interview.

Should they win, they’ll get an inclusive trip to Atlanta with media training, a tour of The Weather Channel headquarters, and a $500 Lands’ End gift card to get just the right weather-reporting wardrobe.

The deadline for entering is May 21. Essays can be submitted here.

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