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The Why of Northwest Winters

The Pacific Northwest got a little bit of national buzz this week for the “historic” snowfall that didn’t turn out to be. Still, we’re getting 3 inches in the urban core and more like 6 out here in the Burbs. Which is far more than the basic level required for our standard Northwest Snow Freakout (if you’re not familiar with our little routine, check out this radio ad from local advertiser PEMCO, “First Snow Freakout Lady”.)

View from my balcony in Redmond during the first phase of the snowstorm on Sunday morning.
The difference is that such amounts of snow are enough to close government operations and major workplaces. Why is that the case? Midwestern transplants find themselves flummoxed – with all of their winter driving experience, they can’t get where they want to go? Mind you, I’m a transplant too… grew up in the Philly suburbs and lived through my share of blizzards and week-long snow closures.

With that said, here’s what is at play in the Pacific NW, if you’re curious:

  1. Hills: The Midwest is flat. You don’t have the issue of scaling slippery hills. Seattle, on the other hand, became a city partially because its inclines lent itself to logging operations. Some hills are just going to be impassable in this kind of weather. Further, bad winters aren’t a given so the city and suburbs weren’t designed for winter weather in mind. In some cases, the hills are mindbogglingly dangerous – I still remember the 2008 visual of a bus which slid all the way down a hill in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
  2. Green Machine: Up until very recently, it was illegal to use salt/de-icer in many parts of the Puget Sound because of the environmental impact when the chemicals joined the melt and flowed into local bodies of water. (Yet the East Coast seems to manage just fine.) This was a large contributing factor in 2008, when a triple storm shut the entire region down. All they were using was sand, and sand wasn’t enough to cut through the accumulations. Even still, after the new regulations many areas aren’t quite as proactive as they might be; and local drivers can’t count on a specific type of road condition since we’re still getting used to the new world order out here.
  3. Infrequency: We typically get one, maybe two major snow events (if any) in the region. This means that it doesn’t make sense to keep large snowplow fleets. My town has 5 snowplows and lots of hills that really require plow coverage to be passable. It’s slow going. And the infrequency means we also don’t have folks with studded or all-weather tires or chains unless they a) lived through a bad storm or b) are skiiers. I myself am the former; living on my crazy hill means I have a set of chains for my poor, weightless, early-model Honda Civic Hybrid.
  4. The Convergence Zone: The Puget Sound is basically a random weather generator. The configuration of mountains and water cause strange weather patterns. We know nothing of this “jet stream” that lets East Coast forecasters predict with any sort of reasonable precision. Several of the more significant snow incidents I’ve lived through here played out like this:

    1. Predict big apocalyptic snow event
    2. 36-24 hours prior, change the forecast to flurries, rain or nothing at all
    3. Everyone goes to work and school unprepared
    4. The originally predicted event hits, stranding everyone unprepared. See 2007 or 2010 – in 2010 this cycle contributed to an 8-hour pre-Thanksgiving traffic nightmare with people stuck outside in their cars in the evening commute. It was a week before all the abandoned cars were collected.

    In this week’s case, the date and severity of the snow events kept changing. It was supposed to snow on Monday and we woke up on Sunday to snow. Then Tuesday was supposed to be a big event and it moved to Wednesday. Then the Wednesday event was supposed to be 6-14 inches, which has since been corrected to 2-6. Is it any wonder people get cocky? It can’t possibly be as bad as they say outside; it never is.

  5. Bad Driving Fundamentals: I do think that our area’s inherent driving quirks lead to issues. We’re famous for under-the-speed-limit drivers, tentativeness and lack of turn signals. Tentativeness and speed issues cause problems when you’re dealing with slippery hills – the key is that you need the RIGHT level of acceleration when approaching a problematic hill like the one at the entrance to my condo complex. There was an accident there within 2 hours of the first flakes. You cannot brake when going up a hill that’s near impassable (but you can’t jam on the accelerator either.) A moment’s hesitation and you will slide backwards. For a graphic demonstration, check out any of the many Seattle driver videos on Youtube, like this one from 2010 or this one from Sunday.

There are some things that make the situation more passable – for example, Microsoft is incredibly tolerant of working remotely. If you look at the traffic cameras today, the Microsoft campus is nearly untouched. No one is in at work, but the campus isn’t closed – we just have the freedom to make that call for ourselves. In a way, that sucks for the locals since those 40,000+ cars aren’t around to break in the snowfall on the street. In fact, all I saw was an abandoned articulated bus at a major Microsoft intersection.

Hard to say if this applies for other local high-tech workplaces. I’ll give the state legislature credit – they’re apparently meeting right now despite a foot of snow in their area. And I know the Everett Mall is open, though that seems a bit foolhardy rather than admirable.

Snowgirl with scarf and bow
The mini-snowgirl, replete with bow, that our neighborhood kids used as a warmup exercise.
And the prevalence of local traffic cameras is great when assessing the situation and deciding whether to venture outdoors. Plus, there are new kids in my neighborhood that are industriously building snowmen at an impressive clip. And folks tend to be friendly during these issues – a local celebrity chef just brought the outdoor newscasters hot cocoa and biscuits; and my pizza guy from Papa John’s WALKED UP MY HILL to deliver my pizza without a second thought when he found it impassable due to the aforementioned accident on Sunday. And yet was smiling when he got here.

And though SOPA has blacked out our ability to learn via Wikipedia in a terrible coincidence, the thick layer of humor and irony laid on by my improvisor friends on Facebook makes it all a bit more bearable. All-caps weather reports from hipster neighborhoods a la the NWS have been rolling in all week AND ARE VERY HELPFUL FOR ONE’S SANITY.

In my case, this is my fourth day “snowed in” at home. Took a brief respite on Monday in my chained car to go out to dinner with friends in anticipation of this very situation – not worth the risk to go outside. Today almost everything is closed anyway. Sadly this will also be my third of three rehearsals that’s been cancelled due to weather – we were supposed to start rehearsing for my next show on Monday. Life will go on, hopefully by the end of the week… and let’s hope this is the only snow event we see this year!

EPILOGUE: A day later, still stranded atop the hill. Calls for “rain”, “warming” and “an end to the precipitation” were all proven to be failcasts, as it’s 2PM Thursday, below freezing and STILL snowing in Redmond (icing in some parts of town). Reports are that it’s in many cases worse than yesterday for driving due to the freezing rain this morning. I COULD get out with my chains, but if someone else isn’t well equipped I could still get hurt, and there are no medals for snowbravery. As someone pointed out, no one is meant to drive on ice unless you’re atop a Zamboni. And when was the last time you passed a Zamboni dealership in the Puget Sound?

Also, LA’s headline about Seattle being wussy about snow? Since it comes from a city that a few months ago nearly shut down to the rain, I guess that explains the sound I thought I heard. You know, the sound of a glass house broken by stones thrown from inside…

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