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):
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!