Baby, it’s hot out there

You might think that the true sign of a Northwesterner is our ineptitude with umbrellas, but it’s really our secret love affair with cool weather

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

You can always tell who true Pacific Northwesterners are; we are all weather wimps. If it gets even slightly below freezing, we pull out our troves of winter appropriate garb – from scarves to gloves and poofy parkas – we pile it on as if we were on our way to an arctic expedition – even though the farthest most of us will go, actually exposed to the weather, is into our car.

We might complain about the cold but most of us secretly like it. It give us an excuse to bundle up and any snow is an added bonus. Virtually all of our snow hangs around just long enough to be fun. Before it has a chance to get dirty it almost always melts away.

Most of us are shocked when we see the grimy, blackened snow (that stays for weeks if not months) most of the mid-West accepts as normal.

We are also stunned by how long winters can be in some other parts of our country.  Two or three weeks of cold weather is plenty for most of us. If we don’t see crocuses and a few other flowers emerging in mid-February, most of us harbor a bit of acquired (and probably not at all justifiable) resentment.

But it is the summers that draw out the true Northwesterners.

Yes, few areas can match our idyllic summer days – a bit cool in the mornings, with a gradual warming through the day and a slight cooling in the early evening. And if it is too hot, a cooling breeze can be found almost anywhere.

There’s enough temperature variance in a typical summer day to suit – or at least not discomfort – most of us.

We might complain about our weather – and of course we do – but the reality is that we have one of the most benign climates on the planet.

Summers here are glorious – or at least they used to be.

Yes, planning an outdoor event can be a bit tricky. Any time after the 4th of July used to be the benchmark for planning outdoor events, but now, as we all know all too well, we can get 80 degree weather in March – or October. And any time in between. Or torrential downpours in August.

This year we are expected to have more days than ever over 80 degrees. And more than usual temperatures over 90. And a much drier summer.

And we were told the same thing last year.

If you have lived here very long, you know that when the temperature hits the low sixties, we locals pull out our shorts and T-shirts and act like we are in Maui or Acapulco.

In those early days of spring most of us wander around like prisoners just released from a deep and dark dungeon.

We love sunny and warm weather. But most of us max out on it quickly.

We love temperatures in the mid-sixties, like the low seventies, grudgingly tolerate the low eighties and our brains melt in the nineties.

Several years ago a Northwest weatherman described a summer forecast this way – “Highs in the mid-70s all week. No relief in sight.”

In spite of our politics or our personal preferences, the warmer and drier weather is impacting us all. Even those far flung (and far northern) places like British Columbia – or, in the case of the summer of 2018 -  Siberia – hit us at home – last year.

The fire hazard level swings as the summer heats up. This sign from Point Defiance shows a low level of danger, but the park has seen several devastating fires which have left charred marks on some of the older trees. Photo: Morf Morford

The fire hazard level swings as the summer heats up. This sign from Point Defiance shows a low level of danger, but the park has seen several devastating fires which have left charred marks on some of the older trees. Photo: Morf Morford

The aspect of weather I hate about most of North America – especially the mid-West and South is that when it is extreme – as in too hot – there is no getting away from it.

Yes, you can scurry from one air-conditioned space to another, but for months at a stretch, it is one stifling, if not suffocating moment after another.

And unlike here, it barely cools down in the evening. And it almost never cools down when the rain comes.

Here, when it hits the 90s, and we get a dash of rain, it cools immediately.

But the last couple summers we have been experiencing an entirely new sub-season; fire and smoke.

It might be here or it might be miles – hundreds, even thousands of miles – away.

Fires along our freeways were almost routine in 2018.

And those who track such things project far more fires in 2019.

In March 2019, usually one of our wettest months, we had 50 wildfires in Washington state. And more than 200 so far this year.

And last summer we had a stretch of weather we all hated – smoke. Again, thanks to British Columbia and Siberia and their dry weather and dense forests, we had  smoke here that was borderline inescapable.

Yes, many of us wore face masks, but it largely didn’t make much difference. We could barely breathe, and we could rarely get away from it.

The haze seemed to linger and invade every crevice and every breath.

In some locations, not far from Tacoma, ash fell from the sky like tiny warm papery snowflakes.

We thought it would last forever, and our local weather reporters described it as “the new normal”. Some of us even thought about moving to cooler climates. But where?

The reality is that fire season has become a new season, one that overlaps spring, summer, even early fall.

And one that threatens the entire continent of North America. You can see an updated map of fires across North America here – https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/.

Fires are not limited to North America of course, you can see a map of fires across the world here – https://fires.globalforestwatch.org/map/.

Whatever your politics might be, I think we all know that fire seasons will become more extreme and more common in the future.

And each fire season is expected to be worse than the one before.

Our notoriously cool and damp Northwest summers have given way to near constant fire hazards, smoke and warnings – https://crosscut.com/2019/04/wa-already-burning-and-could-mean-another-smoky-summer?.

We aren’t the only ones with crazy weather of course, the wettest part of Alaska has been in a two-year drought, the Arctic has had record high temperatures and northern India has had temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Just a reminder, more people die from heat than any other natural impact like freezing or floods. And if you like heat, Phoenix has more than 100 days over 100 degrees.

Tacoma is cool in more ways than one.