Tag Archive | snow

Definitely did not dodge the snow and ice

It may not look like a lot, but…

New residents to the Seattle area always get amused when snow is in the forecast. Native Seattlites and long-term residents leave work early, make grocery store runs, and prepare for the worst at any forecast of more than a dusting of snow. “It’s only 2/4/6 inches!” these recent arrivals shout. “You guys are really overreacting.” If those people still live here the following winter, they do not repeat that folly. I grew up in the central Rocky Mountain region, where temperatures of -25ºF were common, where snow was deep enough most Octobers that you had to wear snow boots and a heavy coat to go trick-or-treating as a child, and so forth. So I thought I knew all about snow and cold weather. As a teen-ager when we first moved to western Washington I didn’t get it either.

There are several reasons it is different. First, we just don’t get that much snow here, at all. Maintaining large fleets of snowploughs that only get used about once every three years just doesn’t make sense for most city and county governments. We have plows, but most are the kind that can be attached to generic utility trucks. So they aren’t quick to deploy, and the drivers don’t get much practice most years.

A related issue is that usually we just don’t get that cold. The ground (and especially the asphalt on roads) stays much warmer throughout the winter than at other places. That means that if we get more than a dusting, the first bunch of snowfall immediately melts when it hits the roadway, but then as more snow falls, the asphalt gets cold enough that that melted snow turns into a sheet of ice. Which more snow is falling onto. Anyone who has lived in places that get lots of snow and has driven on it should know that there is a big difference between driving on snow and driving on ice hiding under snow.

Then there is geography. It’s very hilly here. Really hilly. And again because we don’t get freezing weather and snow often, people build houses on hills that in other parts of the country no sane person would. Several of the small towns I lived in back in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska had one or two stretches of road on steep hills. Those roads never had houses or businesses along them, and every winter the city would put up big roadblocks to completely block that section of road until spring. It was a convenient short route during the summer, but the rest of the time it was closed because it is too steep to drive on safely with snow. About 80% of the roads in Seattle are as steep as the hills that used to get blocked off every winter in those small towns.

All of those hills and the many bodies of water mean that we have microclimates. My favorite example was back when I lived near the ship canal. One day I needed to walk up to a friend’s house that was a mere six blocks from my place. Six blocks up a steep hill. It was very cold and raining hard at my place, down at the bottom of the hill, and it looked like a fog bank was engulfing the hill. I started walking. About half way up, I hit the “fog bank” which was actually snow. There was almost an inch of snow at my friend’s place, and it had been snowing for a couple of hours (so she was surprised I had shown up). I picked up the stuff I was supposed to collect and walked back down the hill. It was still raining hard with no sign of snow there, just six blocks away. So you may leave your house one morning thinking you only have rain to deal with on a short drive, and suddenly find yourself slipping and sliding on ice and slush. Probably sliding backward, because you were going uphill…

Because of the microclimates and how easy a very slight shift in the upper atmosphere can flip us between snow, rain, sleet, or freezing rain, we occasionally get situations where the ground and sidewalks are covered in deep mixtures of snow, ice and slush. That is extremely hard to walk on, and your clothes get soaked with barely-not-freezing water. So even if you try to avoid driving, it can be an ordeal just to walk to a nearby store or to get to the nearest bus stop or light rail station.

The sidewalks are particularly bad because while it is the responsibility of property owners to shovel the walks, most people don’t own snow shovels (cf. above mention that we only get significant snow about once every three years)—one of the local news blogs shared a video earlier this week someone posted online of a neighbor shoveling snow using a Swiffer (indoor mopping gadget). When you combine that with how many stretches of sidewalk go past large apartment buildings (whose owners are just as unlikely as individual home owners to own a snow shovel) and how many stretches of road go past green strips and other public property which doesn’t get shoveled (or in my end of the region, how many neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks at all), well, it’s just a mess.

This year’s event has been a combination of several of our worst problems. The first big snowfall a bit over a week ago turned into sheets of ice with snow on top. Arterials were plowed and de-iced, but more snow kept coming, and sides streets all over the region remained icy slip-and-slides of doom. And more snow keeps coming. We get a break and people go out and try to shovel their drives and sidewalks…. and then it snows again. Then we got the rain/snow mix that put heavy ice on power lines and tree branches resulting in 90,000 households (including us) being without most of the night.

For some perspective: in the last 10 days we’ve had 8 times more snow than Boston has all winter. We are already the snowiest February recorded in the area in 35 years. Seatac Airport has broken a record for most snow in a single day set in 1949.

And we don’t know if it is over. Things are melting a bit today. It’s supposed to be much warmer tomorrow, which will cause more melting (at which point more trees will fall as the ground on all those hills I mentioned above turns to mud) and we may get a bit of flooding some places. Then another cold air mass looks to be moving in late Wednesday night, meaning all those wet street will turn to ice again just in time for the Thursday commute… and another wet air mass is coming toward us from the south hitting either late Thursday or early Friday. That might mean more snow. It might mean rain. It might mean freezing rain. It is likely going to mean all three just depending on where you are.

So, fun?

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We couldn’t dodge the snow and ice forever, I guess

The snow started coming down earlier than forecast.

While a whole lot of the continent was experiencing freakishly cold tempts thanks to the polar vortex, Seattle had the warmest January on record (after a warmer-than-average but not record-breaking December_. It was freaky. Three of my fuchsias on the veranda was still putting out new blooms in late December, and one of there was still doing so in late January. We had high pollen counts at the end of January that forced me to take the maximum dose of my prescription allergy medicine. It was looking like this was going to be one of those mild Seattle winters where I never got to take a break from the prescription medication at all. I mean, most years I have to take the meds for about 10 months out of the year (and I get so tired of explaining to people that yes, you can have hay fever in November—that’s peak mushroom and toadstool season!).

Then last week the local meteorology professor whose blog I read all the time explained how we might be seeing snow by Sunday, and why even though normally you can’t trust forecasts more than four days out, it was a near certainty that all this week we would have freezing weather.

The last in depth forecast I read on Saturday said that we would get snow, but likely no more than an inch of accumulation. And, because of that warmer than usual December and January, the ground was warmer than usual, so the roads and highways would almost certainly be fine Monday.

Whoops!

The forecast had also said that the snow wouldn’t hit our section of the state until nearly sundown on Sunday. So when I looked out the window Sunday afternoon as I was checking on my Superbowl Chili before 1pm and saw that snow was coming down, I was a bit freaked out.

By sundown Sunday there was more than two inches accumulated outside our place, and the snow was still coming down. Overnight lows were “only” in the low 20s Farenheit, but our power went out at about 5:30 in the morning, and by the time the sun was up enough for me to see outside, it was clear we had more than 5 inches of accumulation. All of the schools in the county closed for the day. The highway patrol as well as the state and city departments of transportation was urging everyone that could avoid driving at all to stay off the roads. It was quite icy.

Our power was restored before noon, which was nice. Because it was getting very windy in the early evening Sunday, I made an extra pot of coffee, because I figured a power outage was more than just possible. So one of the upsides to my morning was that I had coffee to drink while I was getting ready for work. It was cold coffee, but it was coffee. As I checked in at work (thank goodness for full charges on the phone and iPad) pretty much all of my co-workers were staying home either because of the roads or because their kids were home from school.

Another upside to all of this were birds at the bird feeder!

I have written before about how, when an immature Cooper’s Hawk started hanging out on my veranda we went from frequently having crowds of one to two dozen sparrows, chickadees, and juncos at our bird feeder, pecking at seeds that get scattered on the deck by the birds pecking at the feeder, or just hanging out in lines waiting for spots to open up on the feeder to me only very occasionally seeing pairs of birds arrive together, most of the time only willing to peck for seeds on the deck down where they could easily hide behind/between my planters and such.

Well, Sunday afternoon as the snow filled the sky, suddenly I had between four and eight little bird out there at a time. That day they were still doing the buddy system I had noticed before: one will peck for seeds either on the deck or the feeder, while the other perches on a tree branch or in one of my larger lavenders and keep an eye peeled; then they trade places after a couple of minutes. So it was all pairs coming to the veranda, and half of each pair would eat while the other kept watch.

I haven’t seen any sign of the hawk since about a week after Thanksgiving. Since about half of all Cooper’s Hawks migrate, it is possible that she was only in our region for about a month while slowly moving south. It’s also possible that the area (since we are in a city, despite the huge numbers of trees all around) simply didn’t have enough prey to support her long term and she moved elsewhere once our neighborhood was hunted out.

Anyway, since I was home today, and in was a day with lots of conference calls (again, thank goodness for phones with good battery life!) I got to watch the feeder. There is a lot of snow on the deck. So even though I spread a lot of extra seed Sunday afternoon once I realized the cold was driving the birds to be less cautious (I also re-filled the feeder), their only real source of food at there was the feeder itself. And the buddy system doesn’t seem to be quite as much an imperative for them.

Standing very still for many minutes back away from the window, using the zoom, I eventually managed to get a picture with more than one bird in it.

They are very skittish, and every time I tried to ease myself slowly to the window to get pictures, they scattered. I eventually managed to get a picture with two birds at the feeder and one visible on the deck below them. The little birds are so light, they don’t sink into the 4+ inches of snow on the deck!

My boss had been trying to get everyone in the department, even folks that usually work from home full time, to come in for a long whiteboarding/planning session for Tuesday. But when the places she tried to order lunch from all pointed out their delivery was iffy, given how icy the roads are expected to be (and the possibility that many schools would still be closed), she started messaging all of us about rescheduling. Her Wednesday, unfortunately, is completely booked with back-to-back management and cross-department status meetings (and since I’m one of the few other members of our group who also works on every single project {being the only technical writer}, I’m in half of those, too), so the earliest we could reschedule is Thursday. Except all the forecasts are saying (beside the temperatures not getting above freezing the rest of the week) that there will be more snow, and possible worse snow, come Thursday… well, it became obvious we need to do the meeting Tuesday, we’re just going to all be doing it remotely.

Which I’m quite happy about, because the only time I’ve been able to make my feet feel anything other than frozen since this thing started is when I’m under the electric blanket. So I really do not want to spend any time standing on frozen sidewalks waiting for a bus!

dsnow/dt

bonuscats.com

Not this stuff, again!

We’re having a teeny bit of snow. Compared to the winter a lot of other people have had, we’ve been getting off easy. But that doesn’t mean I won’t grouse about it.

I’ve been checking up on the blog by Professor Cliff Mass (he teaches meteorology at the U of Washington, and was once a grad student of Carl Sagan). I’ve been following his weekly weather bit on a couple of the local NPR stations for years, where he nerds out about the science of weather. Today’s “nowcast” about our current series of alternating cold and warm fronts.

He was talking about the various computer models that they run, and how as they run them again and again they all change in the same way. He said, “Meteorologists call this dprog/dt or dmodel/dt (those who know some calculus will understand the name!).”

To unpack that joke, in math we are often concerned with rates of change. So we’ll talk about dx/dy, with the “d” referred to delta or change, and the “x” and “y” each being variables representing some quantity you might be monitoring, so “dx/dy” can be transliterated into English as “the change in x in relationship to the change in y.” Which sounds weird and abstract until I point out that every time you look at the speedometer on your car, it’s showing the “the change in distance in relationship to the change in time.” Most of the time we in physics and other physical sciences, the variable “t” represents time, so “dt” is “the change in time.” So Cliff’s comment about “dprog/dt” would be “the change in [the result from the] program in relation to the change in time” and “dmodel/dt” would be “the change in [the result from the computer] model in relation to the change in time.”

Anyway, it made me think of what may be my new favorite rate of change: dsnow/dt, “the change in the amount of snow in relationship to the change in time.”

And let me just say, I hope the slope of that curve goes negative sooner, rather than later. (Which is a nerdy way of saying I want the dang snow to go away!)

In the lane, (g-d d-mn) snow is glistenin’

Lynx in the snow, by Raymond Barlow (raymondbarlow.com)

“More of this stuff? Really?!”

I understand why it’s confusing. I love Christmas music. Not just like it, I love it. I have 30-some different versions of “White Christmas” on my iPhone right now, for goodness sake! I hate hot weather. I gripe about the heat when the temperature is barely high enough for my friends from California or Arizona to think about t-shirts. I write Christmas ghost stories, every year for newrly two-decades, now. I often illustrate blog posts with pictures of lynxes, which often include snow.

So I totally understand why some of my long distance friends don’t understand just how much I despise snow. I hate snow. I have said many times that if I never have to walk in snow ever again—even if I live to be a million years old—I would be just fine.

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