Why Seattleites don’t use umbrellas

I’ve been asked the question many times: as rainy as Seattle is, why don’t any of you have umbrellas? The answer is surprisingly logical, but it takes awhile to explain.

First, despite the reputation, Seattle isn’t as rainy as you think. Manhattan gets more precipitation per year than Seattle, for example. Now, it’s true that within an hour’s drive of Seattle are rain forests that get far more rain than that, but because of mountain ranges to the east and west, plus the the enormous heat sink that is the Puget Sound (an arm of the Pacific Ocean) on one side, and the slightly less enormous heat sink of Lake Washington on the other side, we have weird weather patterns that pushes a lot of the moisture into a convergence zone north of us.

One reason the people who visit or move here from other places think it rains more than it does is because we have many, many, many days of overcast with cool temps and a damp feeling in the air—but not rain. It feels like rain, or at least as if it must have just been raining minutes ago and you just missed it. So they think of some days as rainy when there wasn’t any actual rain.

When we do have rain, all that geography I mentioned means it might be drizzling in one neighborhood, but dry as a bone only a few blocks away.

The rain itself often comes as such a light drizzle that it feels more like a heavy fog or mist than rain. On days like that, it doesn’t matter whether you have an umbrella. If you’re walking, you get damper and damper and damper just from colliding with those micro droplets that seem to hang suspended, rather than fall.

We have a variant of that, where the rain is coming down as perceptible drops, but each seems to be accompanied by a host of the micro droplets. So it feels like you’re immersed. One of my friends describes it as, “It’s like there’s no difference between the air and the river or lake or whichever body of water is nearest.”

On those very rare occasions where the rain is very heavy, it’s almost always horizontal, because it is almost always accompanied by a strong wind. Again, a regular umbrella is useless against that (and is likely to be more of a bother, as the wind keeps trying to yank it away).

While we’re on the subject of wind, we have lots of places where the wind is constant. My office is a few hundred feet from the water front, and the first two miles of my walk home from work is similarly very close to the water. There is a constant airflow either toward the water or away from it in that zone. Because it is constant, it often doesn’t feel like a breeze. It seems to be almost nothing. You notice it most on either very warm days or cold ones. Because if the breeze is coming off the water, it’s always cold. So when the weather is uncomfortably warm, the side of you body facing the water feels noticeably cooler than the other side. If the overall weather is cold, that same breeze makes one side of your body feel as if it has already frozen, and the other side is significantly less frigid.

I’ve watched people try to walk with umbrellas in that part of town a lot. I assume most of them are tourists, as there are a lot of tourist places in the neighborhood. Even though it doesn’t feel like much of a breeze, people are fighting with the umbrellas at every corner. That airflow is sneaky that way. While you’re walking along beside a building, you feel a slight tug on the umbrella, but it’s easy to hang onto. Suddenly, as you get to the intersection, the pressure starts ramping up. Again, it doesn’t feel like an actual wind in your face, yet the umbrella is suddenly yanking and swooping and surging like a living thing trying to escape you.

In between the extremes I described above, we have rain that is a bit more like what people from other parts of the world think of as rain, and on those rare days an umbrella can be helpful—for the three to five minutes it actually is raining at the spot you happen to be at. So, for three to five minutes, ten or eleven days out of the entire year, an umbrella can be useful.

I’m not a native Seattleite. So when I first moved here, I owned an umbrella—for a while I owned a few of those compact collapsing umbrellas, plus one traditional big umbrella. I tried different strategies, such as keeping one at the office, one at home, and one in the car, so I would always have one handy. Or I carried a compact one around in my backpack. The problem remained that either I didn’t happen to have it near me when it would have been useful, or I’d have problems because of the wind, or by the time I dug it out and deployed it, the rain had either stopped, or shifted to the misty drizzle.

Most of the year one needs to have at least a light jacket handy, because it can go from sunny and pleasant to overcast and cold multiple times a day. Similarly, you need to have some sunglasses nearby, because those sun breaks can be quite blinding. You will use sunglasses hundreds, maybe thousands of times a year. But an umbrella will only be useful, at the very most, a dozen times a year.

And that’s why most Seattleites don’t use umbrellas—but almost all of us have spare pairs of sunglasses stashed around.

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