The Newbie’s Guide to Weather in Seattle

November 12, 2009

“Doesn’t it rain there all the time?”

I get this question all the time from friends and business contacts in other cities, including some who’ve considered moving here.

The simple answer is “no.” In fact, Seattle gets fewer average inches of annual rain than most major cities on the East Coast, including New York and Miami. (Check out this comparison tool, which uses NOAA data.) And I would gladly argue that the weather in Seattle is much more pleasant than in most of the Northeast or Midwest–there’s zero humidity in the summer, and it seldom drops below freezing for more than a few days.  Big snow is rare enough to cause city-wide shutdowns.

So where does Seattle’s reputation as the bad-weather capital of the world come from? Several factors are at play.

First, while it doesn’t rain all the time, and the city gets plenty of gloriously sunny days, especially in the summer and fall, it can rain any time. The weather reports are notoriously unreliable, and there’s no safe month to plan an outdoor event like a wedding. Seattle natives all have stories about freezing their butts off in the drizzle on the 4th of July, and I personally played an outdoor show at a Seafair party on the first Sunday of August where I had to wear a coat to protect myself from the cold. I remember one summer when I was a kid where every one of my outdoor swim meets took place on a freezing overcast day–that’s six weekends in a row in June and July.

Second, while Seattle’s weather is much more pleasant than, say, Chicago’s, it sucks compared with California’s weather. And most Seattle immigrants come from California.

Finally, Seattleites love to talk about the weather, and while you’ll certainly hear people comment when it’s a glorious day, they’ll also complain about everything. We even complain when it’s too sunny in the summer! It’s a point of pride.

With all this in mind, I’ve decided to put together this month-to-month guide of weather in Seattle. These are personal recollections based on my living here as a child from 1976 to 1987, and again as an adult from 2000 through 2009. (If you want to check actual statistics, Beautiful Seattle has them.)

January: brutal. It seems unfair to start in the middle of the winter, but New Year’s Day in the Northern Hemisphere comes a scant 10 days after the solstice, and January is one of the uglier months in Seattle, with short dark days–East Coasters don’t realize we’re farther north than the northernmost tip of Maine, which means the sun sets around 4:20 on Dec. 21st–compounded by lots of overcast days with rain and wind. A few days of snow are possible. January does have one saving grace, however: there’s almost always a cold snap. That means a few days or maybe a week of exceptionally clear, beautiful skies with great views of snowy mountains on all sides. And low temperatures in the teens. Bundle up!

February: false hope. The first two or three weeks of February continue in much the same way as the last three months: short days (but getting longer), overcast skies, and lots of wind and rain. Like December, it’s a common month for big snows. There might also be another week of clear, very cold weather. Then, about three weeks in–often around President’s day–the skies clear. The crocuses and plum trees bloom. The temperature creeps up into the 50s, then the 60s. One year, I saw a bank thermometer reading 70 degrees in February. Shorts and sandals and spring dresses begin to appear. I always laugh when I see the hope in their eyes–they know not of the February Fakeout. It ends brutally. With March.

March: the worst. Unrelentingly bad. Non-stop wind and heavy rain and very little sun. I’ve lived here most of my life and I’m still surprised by how consistently terrible the weather in March is. The beginning of spring feels like winter renewed. In like a lamb? Maybe we’re just a little early here, and the lamb-like weather comes in February instead. Out like a lion? Yes.

April: schizophrenic. You want bright blinding sun? Freezing rain? Sleet? Hail? Snow showers? Rainbows? Balmy tropical fronts from Hawaii? Long sunny days at the park? You’ll get it all in April. Often on the same day.

May: the sleeper. This is when spring really begins. The days are getting very long–the sun sets after 8 by the end of the month, and it can be twilight almost until 10. The flowers have been blooming for a couple months, but the big glorious rhododendrons and azaleas are in full bloom in May. You’ll almost always get your first legitimate day of shorts and barbecue weather, and it often lasts a week or two. Some years it’ll be gorgeous all month long. Unfortunately, it seldom lasts.

June: the backstabber. June sucks. Year after year after year. The clouds roll in. The drizzle starts again. The days stay light until 10:30 or later, but the light is diffused under a thick layer of stratus clouds. This is the month that transplanted Californians put their houses on the market. This is the month that every wedding planner dreads. (“You really ought to have an indoor backup.”) This is the reason why the University of Washington starts and ends its school year so late. Once every few years, you’ll get a strangely beautiful June–2009 was amazing, and 2006 had a couple stretches of hot weather–but for the most part, June is unreliable and disappointing.

July: beautiful. Depending on the year, early July can be a continuation of June. (My dad, who’s lived here now for 33 years, always says you can’t count on summer until July 15.) But eventually, summer comes. The temperature gets hot–the all-time record of 103 was set in July, and highs seldom drop below 70. This is the month when Seattleites emerge from their collective hibernation into a crazed period of barbecues and outdoor parties, when the beer turns from dark to light, and when all the people with boats suddenly have new friends.

August: yeah. August is usually the same as the last part of July, but occasionally a cold front blows through, dropping a few days of cool rain, particularly toward the end of the  month. Thunderstorms are also pretty common. But by and large, it’s a great month for barbecuing and boating.

September: will the glory never end? Another beautiful month. The beginning is indistinguishable from August–hot and dry, with the occasional weak little front–and by the end the leaves have started to change and the evenings will be golden and it’ll be even drier (although a little cooler) and you’ll start to forget what winter was like. Hey, Seattle’s not so bad after all!

October: uh-oh. It may last a few days. It may last three weeks. I’m talking about the glorious fall weather–still dry, often warm, with beautiful leaves and a crisp snap in the air. Sure, you’re getting a few more fronts now, and they seem to last a bit longer, but the beginning of October feels like more September. Then you see it. A line of low grey clouds moving in from the southwest. This is different from the puny little storms that have occasionally passed over since August–this is serious. Dark. Heavy. Moving fast. It hits and drops a ton of rain, often warm and tropical-feeling. (The all-time 24-hour rainfall record was set on Oct 19 and 20, 2003–more than 5 inches in 24 hours. I remember because it was my birthday and we’d just moved into our house and I was wondering if the roof would hold up.) Nothing’s the same after this. You might still get a few more nice afternoons and evenings, but take advantage of them.

November: winter’s here. At some point, the fronts start to run into each other. The ratio of sunny to rainy is reversed–now, when the sky’s blue in the morning, you’re surprised and you race to take advantage of it with dog walks or hurried drives to the park. The sun never lasts more than a day or two. The wind starts in earnest–all the leaves will definitely be down by the end of the month, and you may lose power. It might snow. Very occasionally in an El Nino year, November will remain unusually dry and warm–I remember it being like that in 2000. But by and large, you’re in for it.

December: blah. Cold. Wet. Windy. If you’re getting a crippling week-long snowstorm, like happened in 2008, it’ll probably be in December. If you’re getting 100-mile hour winds that knock your power out for days, like happened in 2006, it’ll probably be in December. The days are so short you hardly have time to wake up before it’s getting dark again. Fortunately, the month is bookended with Thanksgiving right before in November, and Christmas and New Year’s at the end, so there are plenty of opportunities to drink yourself into a stupor and forget how crappy it is outside.