Seattle: The Emerald City (Really!)

It is not the heat, it is the humidity.
-- David Letterman (ok not really, but it was a catch phrase for a while)

No matter where you live, people can find a reason to complain about the weather (or is it weather forecasting?).  Seattle is no different and while we call it the "Emerald City" most probably think that was a marketing ploy not unlike that of the Greenland Chamber of Commerce (ok some people call it the Rainy City--just no one who lives here).  A senior group program manager extended an offer to a college graduate last week and she said she has spent a lot of time on the issue of weather.  So what is the deal with the weather in Seattle?

I mostly grew up in Orlando, Florida.  It is weird growing up in a vacation destination people associate with warm weather and spring break.  Until I was 10 we lived in New York and would visit my grandparents in Florida ("del Boca Vista" for sure) and I remember frolicking in the swimming pool in December. Once we lived in Florida I quickly realized just how crazy it is to swim in the winter in Florida--after all it is like 70 degrees outside, brrrr...  Climate is a pretty relative thing.

Seattle is a temperate zone.  It is really middle of the range.  A lot of Seattle's weather is caused by the fact that it is sandwiched between two mountain ranges (the Olympics to the west and the Cascades, foothills of the Rockies, to the east).  This sort of has the effect of keeping the hot side hot and the cool side cool, so to speak.  While you might think of Seattle as being on the "coast" it is actually a couple of hundred miles to the real Pacific ocean and to get there you have to cross a real live rain forest (one with bugs the size of kittens and leaves the size of small car).   

This middle of the road weather is great.  You never really need gloves and a fleece pullover is de rigueur for about 9 months of the year.  When you're not wearing urban hiking boots (of course you never know when a mountain will spring up) you're wearing sandals (ok not me).  There are people who wear shorts literally the entire year (our VP of HR is famous for that).  Basically Seattle is a place where it just never gets too cold or too hot.  Maybe a few times a year it is what you would think of as winter on the east coast, and rarely does it get to what you might consider hot by southern standards, and it never gets humid and it rarely snows (in Seattle proper).  Most developers can wear their favorite thinkgeek t-shirts year round (and by the way, contrary to rumors I do own a "No I won't fix your computer" t-shirt).

Statistics are of course the best way to show this.  The following table (from NOAA) shows some weather stats from a number of selected cities around the US (btw, I formatted this with new features of Excel "12" that show off how easy it is to create visualizations of information):

table comparing weather in various US cities

As I mentioned, Seattle is in the middle of two mountain ranges.  This makes the climate for Seattle unique relative to traveling 100 miles east or west.  If you go west, you hit the rain forest and those mountains.  If you go east, you hit the truly alpine region in the Rockies. So that means you can travel and find radically different weather.  As I write this there is an expectation of about a foot of snow in the Cascades, which means great skiing!

As you can see, Seattle really is right in the middle based on all the metrics.  For temperature you can see how moderate Seattle is right in the middle of the pack, and the standard deviation is quite low relative to most others.  This means for the most part the weather folks can get it right in Seattle.

You can see it doesn't really snow in Seattle.  In fact I was surprised to see that historical average since it has been years since I recall snow on the ground in Seattle.  If you want snow what we like to do is keep it out by the mountains for skiing! 

Rain. Now that's an interesting one.  Most people are quite surprised to learn that it doesn't rain all that much in Seattle especially compared to the precipitation of nearly every city on the east coast.  Seattle rarely gets "rain" but rather we have sort a mist or drizzle.  This is actually really great since you never overuse your windshield wipers and you never need an umbrella.  In fact when I first moved out here and walked outside in the rain with a coworker from Portland, I popped open an umbrella and got a look of "what the heck is that contraption".  That was the last time I carried one of those around.  You just don't need it.  Plus with all that Polartec and all those REI Gore-Tex anoraks we're well protected.  Having gone to college in Ithaca, NY and grad school in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts I can safely attest to the fact that having no melting snow and having no driving downpours is definitely a big positive.

Of course what you will see is that Seattle has the most days of "precipitation".  These are those misty days.  I guess weather people call those precipitation, technically.  It is definitely true that the sun does not shine a lot and the sky is not blue during the winter months.  But then again if you head to the mountains you will be in blue sky skiing territory in short order (a couple of hours drive).  Scientists debate whether this type of weather really has a profound effect on people and whether than is biological or psychological.  I certainly don't know.  It is the weather and I can say that for me personally the predictability and "middle of the road" of the winter compared to other places is really a benefit.  You know what clothes to wear.  You know the roads won't get closed.  You know you don't have to slog through mud.  It is really just fine. 

A lot of people do use the winter to take vacations in places like Hawaii (I visit my family in Miami, but believe me I don't go swimming in December anymore).    That's why I included Hawaii.  That is probably the favorite destination for vacations and lots of direct flights and tour packages make that easy.  Of course just as many people head north to the great ski resorts of the world like Whistler and get that same "recharge". 

If you keep comparing different cities some things might jump out.  Like why don't we move Microsoft to Hawaii?  How about Las Vegas (brrr...memories of freezing at COMDEX)?  Probably not Chicago. Of course San Francisco is well known for having moderate yet wildly unpredictable weather--"the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" the saying goes (Mark Twain did not really say that)--and the summers are known to be fog-filled (taking the SFO-SEA shuttle is an adventure for sure!).   

Geographically and thus in terms of weather, Seattle is one of the most unique locations in the continental US.  Seattle itself is moderate.  But the state of Washington has alpine regions, rain forests, plains, and quite a lot of farmland as well (all those apples, Walla Walla onions). Seattle is also located along the same latitude as the wine regions in France and turns out to be a source of some great wines as a result (Columbia Valley wines).  Seattle also has a huge glacier lake that is an awesome place for boating activities.  If you like fishing, all sorts of salmon and other wild fishing sources are nearby.  And for those of you that are ocean going, the Puget Sound is a great boat ride.  In terms of outdoor activities, it is fair to say that Seattle is a leader in mountain biking, snow skiing/boarding, hiking, alpine climbing (Mt. Rainer among others), sailing, hydroplane boating (ok, not for everyone), road cycling (there's also a velodrome about 1 mile from Microsoft), camping, rock climbing, and so on.  There's a reason REI started in Seattle!

The most amazing thing about Seattle weather is the summer.  You have 15 hours of daylight.  Clear blue skies.  Nights filled with stars. Clear air.  You open your windows and sleep comfortably. They are amazing.  Every single day.  Any intern who spent the summer here will tell you that you just cannot beat the weather in the summer.  So even if the mist gets you down a little, the summers more than make up for it.

Of course in those winter months there is plenty to do at night.  Seattle is pretty famous for having a pretty cool music scene and there are tons of clubs downtown (where many recent graduates live).  Seattle also has world class symphony performances.  We have a very active theater community with many Microsoft employees participating in original Seattle-based productions.  We have ballet and dance.  The Space Needle.  Well...come out here and see for yourself.

The weather is something everyone everywhere has an opinion on for sure.  I believe if you're thinking of moving to Seattle you should not use the weather as a reason to pass by the opportunity--actually I would say use the weather as reason to take us up on our offer.


PS: Here in the USA it is Thanksgiving -- have a happy break from school and I'll be back in December! 

Comments (40)
  1. Bernard Oh says:

    Seattle offers a great lifestyle. It is a great city not only in terms of its weather and the many interesting and diverse suburbs around the area, also the sheer amount of intellect, entrepreneurial and creative energy over there. Must be something in their coffee.

    I am not just talking about Microsoft here. Real, Amazon, Adobe and Boeing (?) call Seattle home. There are also heaps of great places to go for walks and enjoy the outdoor (Mt Rainier, Mt St. Helen, Mt Si etc). Vibrant music scene, great seafood, beautiful parks, what else do you want?

    I will love to go back and live in Seattle when I get another chance.

  2. Chris says:

    I disagree with you about the umbrella – I bus to work every day, and I get rained on a lot. An umbrella is a must – even if it’s only light rain, 40 degrees + rain = cold and miserable.

  3. Doug says:

    I grew up in Seattle, and I agree that you don’t really need rain gear or an umbrella here. What Seattleites call rain is called mist in many other places, and it never rains as hard in Seattle as the average Midwestern thunderstorm.

    The lack of snow is nice, too. (That 11" number does seem high to me.) I drove a motorcycle year-round in Seattle as a young man, and only missed a couple of days of work each winter due to snow. Try that in Chicago or New York!

    Seattle’s weather is something people seem to either love or hate, and I’d cast my vote in the love-it column. After living in other cities for 23 years, it’s good to be back in an area where you almost never need air conditioning or an insulated snowsuit.

  4. Aaron says:

    There are not a lot of places in the world where you can be snow skiing and less than a 90 minute drive later you can be surfing (or at least wading on salt water) as there is not a lot of surf but Seattle is one of them.

    Every other time I walk by the Space Needle on the way to a Sonics basketball game or a Thunderbirds hockey match at Key Arena they are playing the song "The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle" which I think Bobby Sherman did for the TV show from the late 60’s "Here come the brides."

  5. Dave says:

    I’ve been here for 4 years now. What goes by "rain" here is pretty pathetic. I dont even bother with the Goretex jacket.

    True, my first experience with the "rain" season was pretty miserable. It was gray and I felt like I was in that Pleasantville movie. But when spring came along, it was great! Que in Disney-scene of radiant sunlight and tweeting birds.

    Ultimately, being a student of UW (the local university), its not bad at all. The most miserable weather occurs during Winter quarter. We simply think of it as the studying quarter, where you concentrate on the work during the week, and spend the weekend up on the slopes.

  6. anon says:

    Wow…what’s the head of Office dev/test/qa/planning doing so actively selling the weather in Seattle?!?! A new mode: "barking on blogs". Why the need? People don’t go to Seattle for sunny, warm days. Rather its for coffee and lots of time to program…who needs to look (or be) outside? There’s a reason you play in the snow in the winter, and lake/ocean/sound in the summer…there’s lots of water…rain/snow pack/rain shed, etc. I’m reminded of the stats that for sunny days per year, SF leads at 162, Dallas is next at 138, Denver has 115, even NYC has 107, Seattle lags at 57…that’s less than 2 months of sunny weather per year. Not even a sunny summer! OK< OK Yakut Alaska is less at 41 days. I think it’s telling when the weather guys on Seattle TV forecast the probablity of "sunbreaks"….every where else I’ve been they forecast the likelihood of showers. Maybe there’s a reason???

    If you want great weather its the Silicon Valley: no rain (of any kind) from April to November. Rain in the winter is interspersed with bright, sunny days…no interminable overcast. The weather has been a balmy 70+ and sunny the past weeks and forecasted through the end of November. Hmm…looking at Seattle weather isnt quite the same. Oh yeah, Seattle’s latitude is 47′ and Moscow Russia is 46′. Let’s see, San Jose California’s latitude is 37′, Athens Greece is 38′. Those in Silicon Valley will see the sunset today past 5PM, I dont think Seattle will see its at 4:27PM PM. Let’s forget about the weather and get back to what matters: innovation in Office 12 and Microsoft.

  7. steven_sinofsky says:

    Yes I’m editing the comments. The tone I am trying to keep is one where if you want to discuss the topic at hand, great. But when your comments turn into just a place to express your views then I think the right forum is for you to just start your own blog. Also, I do strongly encourage Microsoft employees to contact me directly–we can have a much more in depth and richer exchange of ideas that way.


  8. Kristen says:

    Seattle’s great. I was skiing yesterday at Snoqualmie Pass. It’s a 30 minute drive from my house. It’s not Whistler, but is a great place to do a day’s skiing when I can’t get up to Whistler for a weekend. As a former East Coaster, I also love the lack of humidity and mosquitos in the summer.

  9. dinesh says:

    I just moved from Dallas, and I think Seattle is a "sea-change" from BigD and it took me a while to adjust to the rain. The landscape is far more appealing than in Dallas which makes up for the weather in some ways.

    The things that hit me hard and caught me by surprise were the roads (the traffic) – by far the worst I have ever seen after living in several major cities in the US and the housing prices – 3 to 5 times that of the DFW metro making it totally unaffordable for the first time home buyer πŸ™‚

  10. steven_sinofsky says:

    So much excitement over the weather–well everyone has a viewpoint for sure.

    dinesh, traffic is a tough thing to measure. Most of my experience has been that when you see a new traffic pattern for the first time you think "wow that is the worst ever". I just spent the week in Beijing where it took 90 minutes to get about 10 miles from the hotel to the Microsoft office. It can easily take an hour to commute from a place you can live in Boston or San Fran to an office. In Seattle, there is bad traffic for sure, but the one aspect that I think is "unique" is that the traffic is very predictable because of the choke points that cause it (the bridges). I have taken the same 25-30 minutes to get to work from downtown to the redmond office since I started in 1989. It is possible to do the trip in 18-22 minutes with no traffic and hitting the lights, but the window for that has shrunk (you have to leave before 8am and things clear up around 8pm these days).

    Of course everyone has a different opinion!

    And btw, I was stuck in Dallas traffic at a wedding a few months ago and boy that was "the worst traffic I ever saw"!

    Housing is a bubble market just about everywhere in the US right now so the numbers are tricky to look at. Housing in the sun belt is definitely on the less expensive side, particularly for rentals as the supply outstripped demand.

  11. dinesh says:

    Steven – you are probably right, when I worked in NY, I felt it had the worst traffic. I guess recency plays a big role in forming thoughts, and the most recent experience re-inforces beliefs…guess Seattle traffic is not as bad, but the roads definitely are narrow :).

    Housing – well, I am hoping either the bubble bursts or I win the next lotto πŸ˜‰


  12. steven_sinofsky says:

    Hey there Microsoft employees–feel free to send email. Since we all work at the same place there’s no need to use this blog to try to communicate with me.

  13. gizmo says:

    I was with Microsoft for six years. While the company is definately going through some growing pains, the experience on whole was well worth it. No other company has as many smart people working for it, and if you approach it the right way that is an invaluable experience.

    But at the end of the day the weather (and traffic) drove me away. In the summer, you can’t beat Seattle. But countless days without sun the rest of the year really affected me. It’s only since I moved away that I really realize how much this was the case. Moved to Boulder, CO and life is great now!

  14. Feroze Daud says:

    I think weather is one of those things that takes getting accustomed to. When I moved here 9 years ago (from florida) I landed right in the middle of a snow storm which dumped a lot of snow and caused the parking lots of many appartment complexes to crumble.

    Anyway, I have gotten used to the weather, and I absolutely love it in seattle. I like the four seasons, leaves changing color in the fall, etc. The only thing that drive me nuts sometimes is the long grey winters, but it is getting less of a concern as time goes by.

  15. Dave says:

    ITS SNOWING! Sorry, this is the second time it has happened to me in the last four years. I’m in the Sammamish office, and I got the view of the Lake Sammamish State Park, and its like Winter Wonderland out there.

    Re: traffic. I admit that traffic is a huge bummer for me. But really, the thing about MS I love, which took me nearly my entire term as an intern to figure out, is that we dont use a time-clock. I can come start work at home, then drive to the office at 10, when traffic has chilled. No one is going to complain, because its about the results. Not how much determination and patience you have for the commute.

  16. ken_moore says:

    One more point on location. Regardless of the weather and whatever the traffic, Seattle is it is located in a state with no state income tax. Compare that to California (, which has a top bracket rate of 9.3%. Fair city comparisons certainly involve more factors than taxes, but if you don’t have property or school issues, avoiding a haircut on state income tax is a significant positive feature.

  17. Someone being recruited from the Bay Area says:

    Hey there,

    While I admire the enthusiasm, Steven, it does frankly seem a bit hollow. I have friends at Microsoft and many friends in Seattle. When chatting with them, they’ve *all* been delightfully blunt: The weather in Seattle is gray and dismal for most of the year, and there are some gorgeous days in summer. Not ever too freezing or boiling hot or humid. Just mostly damp.

    Personally, I think you should have lead with that more apt description, and you could have cut out most of the other verbiage.

    This fellow’s notes in the comments were also pretty instructive:

    sunny days per year, SF leads at 162, Dallas is next at 138, Denver has 115, even NYC has 107, Seattle lags at 57

    Ahem. I live in San Francisco. And I’d also like to correct a long-held — but largely mistaken — assumption that the entire city is foggy most of the time. My friends in the Mission/Potrero district *almost never* have fog. Where I live in SF, it’s not foggy for more than 40-50 days a year, I’d say, at MOST.

    And when I worked in Mountain View (Silicon Valley), let me just say that 90+% of the days were in the 70s… just gorgeous, simply gorgeous.

    * * *

    So cut the bull, in other words. Seattle weather, by most rational standards, sucks. Those of us thinking about moving to Seattle for Microsoft are enticed by Seattle’s beautiful surroundings, plentiful culture and nightlife, great food, and lots of smart people. Not to mention all the truly cool stuff about Microsoft.

    But putting a *sunny* face on Seattle? That’s just plain misleading and silly, IMHO.

  18. steven_sinofsky says:

    I think it is a bit odd to be critical of an opinion. I have a lot of friends here in Seattle and they all love the weather!

    I’m especially happy with the weather here after just arriving from being trapped in the snowstorm on the eastcoast–National airport looked like the shuttle terminal at SFO during one of those routine fog-ins.

    Weather is an opinion. Everyone can have one. I grew up in the Sunshine State and like the weather here *much* more than I did living in the nation’s number 1 tourist destination.

    So there πŸ™‚

  19. Ileane Frank says:

    My brother lives in seattle and he tells me it rains all the time and is rarely ever a full day of sun ever! It’s almost always overcast. Think he’s trying to tell me not to move out West. Guess he went as far West as he could from our home in NJ. πŸ™‚ He loves it out there! He’s here visiting now for the holidays, after spending the week with my husband, my mther, my 3 kids and 2 dogs, think he is about ready to go back. Considering he is a single 39 year old guy living on his own out there, December 17th, when he returns is not arriving fast enough.

    Ileane Frank

  20. Leah says:

    Seattle weather is fine. The sky is perfectly blue and sunny as I type this. I wonder if people count rainy days as days that get any rain at all. I don’t really care if it rains in the middle of the night.

    The winters aren’t too cold and the summers aren’t too hot. I can kayak year round if I want to.

    And I never have to shovel rain.

    More concerning is the latitude. It does get dark quite early in the winter. If you come to Seattle, you may want to get a light-box or other sunrise emulator device to ward off SAD.

  21. Adam says:

    But can you kayak to work, Leah? Now *that* would be cool! (a friend of mine actually did that in the Bay Area a wile back :D)

  22. Rosie says:

    Hello All!!

    My Fiance is talking of moving to Seattle and tells me its nice weather there. I have read all your comments and understand the different interprtations of what each of you think of the weather living there. I live here in Charlotte, NC but grew up in the HUMID state of Georgia. I hate the very hot and humid weather and moved to charlotte with my two boys to escape it. I don’t mind grey rainy days and do like sunshine too, I also like to see some snow not months of it though. Here in charlotte we get snow one or twice a year and it melts in two days, so not much a worry to deal with it. I do love big cities and love to ski and do watersports or go to the beach. I hear the coast of seattle is beautiful and there is plenty to do there. Your never bored, my boys like going out and doing things since they are age 11 and 13yrs old. Would you recoomend the state to family to move to ….we are very interested in moving there.

    Your thoughts,


  23. Russ says:

    Just another take–

    I grew up in Phoenix, and moved to Seattle in 1991 for an MS position. I was probably a bad risk, since I have never had a problem with very hot weather, and love the sun. I moved in early January, and the fourth day I was there, it was so dark at noon that people had on their headlights. I didn’t know such weather existed on earth. I tried hard to acclimate for the next 3 years, and agree that other than the weather there is a lot to be said for the city. But soon enough, both my wife and I realized that the incomparable lack of sun just wasn’t acceptable.  As for the summers, they were even way too cold for our tastes.  We left good jobs and moved back to AZ without any. Luckily, no one place is for everyone or there’s be a lot of miserably crowded areas. I’m glad so many people love it up there…please discourage your friends from moving to AZ….it’s too crowded here too!!!

  24. I blogged about the weather recently, so I’m not going to do it again … but a MSFT VP shares his thoughts

  25. Ginger Sanders says:

    Thanks so much for the post! I absolutely love Seattle, and I never miss an opportunity to go hiking with my boots and <a href="">two way radios</a>. It's one of the many things I truly love about living in Seattle.

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