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Friday, January 20, 2012

A Wintry Week in Seattle

Winter snow is by no means a given in the lowlands of Seattle and it can seldom be depended upon to show up even when predicted. Some years we get none at all, others years just a half an inch one day that melts within 24 hours. On the other hand, we do get the occasional winter storm, like the one that kept the entire Seattle area blanketed with snow and sub-freezing temperatures for nearly two weeks a couple of years ago. This week, from the 14th to the 20th of January, we have received a whole slew of satisfyingly wintry weather.

My backyard, seen from my study window, on January 14th.

It began on Saturday. It should be noted that my house, located on top of a hill northeast of Seattle and on the southern-most edge of the Puget Sound Convergence Zone, tends to get snow if there is going to be snow. The Convergence Zone, for those of you who are not Seattle natives, is the weather phenomenon created by incoming weather systems being split by the Olympic Mountains that lie between the ocean and the sound. The point where they typically converge covers an area fifteen to twenty-five miles north of downtown Seattle and slightly to the east, which receives more snow, more rain, and often more wind than the rest of the Seattle metro area. This is why, while it snowed quite hard for a couple of hours at my house on Saturday, it was not snowing at all just a few miles to the south at my acupuncturist's. I had been hoping to take my new camera out into the snow to get some great macro snow photos (of which I had very few, since my old point-and-shoot was not great in the snow), but the weather warmed and by the time I got home from acupuncture, the snow was melting fast. I crossed my fingers that the possibility of more snow in the forecast would come true so I could get some snow photos this year!

Looking out at five inches of snow on the back deck on January 15th.

It turned out that I was in luck! It started snowing in late morning on the 15th and I went out into the white with my camera before I'd even had breakfast. I was not going to miss out on my snow photo opportunity! After examining my first round of photos, I adjusted my camera settings and set out again. During the hour or so when I was inside, the temperature had dropped a couple of degrees and it started snowing so hard that three inches accumulated in the course of an hour! I didn't stay out long, since the conditions were a bit cold for me and rather wet for my camera, but I managed to get some good pictures. All in all, we got five inches at my house, but that was thanks to the Convergence Zone. There were neighborhoods in Seattle that got none at all, and others just a dusting. After the afternoon snowing frenzy, the sky cleared, and so when my father and I ventured out to the grocery store that night, I was struck by the beauty of the black-and-white snow-draped conifers that seemed to glow against the inky blue-black of the star-speckled sky.

Looking up in my backyard as the snow falls.

Abbey, who loves the snow, gets a dusting.

And then it started snowing really hard!

The view from my study window, January 16th.
On Wednesday, it was cloudy and just above freezing. The snow was melting slightly, but there was certainly enough for Abbey and me to play a great game with her squeaky bone in the backyard! Abbey loves the snow so much that apparently she knows the sound of the drawer where I keep my snow pants being opened, because she came running in, wiggling with delight, before I even pulled them out of the drawer. She knew that if I was putting on my snow pants, we were almost certainly going outside to have a jolly game! We did, and she pounced and slid and romped about with her squeaky bone. The backyard snow was no long pristine when we were done with it! 

Abbey and her squeaky bone on the back deck's trampled snow after our game.

And then, on Tuesday, it melted. Well, a lot of the snow melted. It snowed a bit and rained a bit and then even the sun was out for a while. Our front yard, which is protected in part by a large douglas-fir, was nearly bare by Tuesday night. However, an epic snow storm was in the forecast. There was even talk of double digits! Ultimately, the worst of the snow hit south of Seattle. Still, by Wednesday at 1:00, we had six inches out on the bench on our back deck. A friend of mine was in town and we initially cancelled our plans, but then my dad, who likes to drive in the snow, volunteered to be the chauffeur. I attempted to take a picture of a phalanx of snow plows on the freeway on my way to meet her because I'd never seen snow plows on the freeway before and thought it was pretty cool! We don't have many snow plows out here (seeing as there is not usually much snow) and so it was exciting from my perspective to a) see snow plows in formation on the freeway and b) have enough snow on the freeway to plow! When I returned from my social outing that evening, the freeway was completely covered.

Snow plows on the freeway on January 18th.

And a word to all those out there who mock the snow-driving abilities of Seattle's fair citizens: don't knock us until you've tried it. Snow here is different than the snow that falls on most of the rest of the country. It's very, very wet. It also doesn't tend to be very cold when it snows, so the ground is not frozen and the initial snow that falls melts on contact. When it finally gets cold enough to freeze, this melted layer turns to ice. Quite often it will get just above freezing during the day, softening the snow/ice on the roads, but then drop below freezing overnight, turning anything that melted into ice. What ends up covering the streets is so-called "Seattle cement," a compacted mixture of ice and wet snow that provides minimal traction. There simply aren't enough plows and de-icers and sanders to handle more than a tiny fraction of the streets, so most roads are left in their natural state. And then there are the hills. The whole Seattle metropolitan area is built on hills, many of them very steep. When you mix ice and inclines, physics take over and it doesn't matter how good of a driver you are. This isn't the Midwest, where the snow is dry enough that it can be blown and the land is flat. So unless you're some kind of superhuman who has the power to stop a car from sliding on a steep hill covered in what looks like snow but is really ice, cut the kidding, okay?  

Snow falling on the back deck on January 19th.

The forecast had called for a warm front to move in on Thursday, but instead we had freezing rain most of the night and then snow in the morning. The temperature remained solid at 29 degrees all day long as the snow came steadily down. By the late afternoon, we'd amassed between seven and eight inches out on the back deck (it had compacted some during the night). The dog was not keen on playing in snow that had a crust of ice from the freezing rain below the surface--she didn't like how she'd break through to the softer snow underneath--so we stayed indoors and watched the snow come down all day long.

The air is hazy with the falling snow that continues to coat the trees.

A nice icicle hanging from the eves.

The plant that sits below that large icicle was covered in ice as well.

Abbey and I appreciated the snow from inside the house.

The sodden snow as seen on the back deck, January 20th.

And today, at long last, the temperature has finally crept above freezing and the rain has begun. The trees have been shedding the snow that had piled up on their branches all day long with great plops, but it's taking a long time for the built-up snow on the deck to dwindle. The once pristine expanses of snow are now pock-marked and discolored.

The snow is melting out from underneath the iciest layer on the chair, leaving a shell behind.

All in all, though, it's been a great winter storm from a weather enthusiast's perspective. Multiple days of snow are so rare here! And, of course, I got some snow photos! Spring is now welcome to come if it wishes.


  1. All that snow sure is lovely to look at from a much warmer place.

  2. Lovely Lovely snow pictures!!!! I do love a good snowy Winter.. And we usually get one here in Michigan.... You can't fight the laws of physics even with an SUV with 4 wheel drive.....

  3. Oh I miss the snow covered nature goodness!