Our zigzaggy weather, explained

By Nic Loyd, WSU meteorologist, and Linda Weiford, WSU News

weathercatch(2) (2)SPOKANE, Wash. – If you live in the Inland Northwest, you know about its zigzaggy climate: One week we’re dressed in shorts, the next in coats; one day we’re opening umbrellas, the next we’re shoveling snow; one minute we’re wearing a hat, the next it’s whipped off by the wind.

Called “variability” in meteorological lingo, it’s basically a smorgasbord of weather delivered to our doorstep by a variety of factors, including our latitude, our distance from the Pacific Ocean, the Cascade Mountain Range to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the east. Fortunately, the harsh weather events we do get are sporadic – freezing rain and a windstorm here, triple-digit heat and a thunderstorm there.

Because the Spokane area is located 47.67 degrees north of the equator, we don’t see intense, prolonged heat. And thanks to the Rockies that buffer cold air masses from Canada, we don’t experience persistent sub-zero temperatures like Montana and North Dakota do. Sure, we might get an occasional bad snowstorm, but blizzards – and their accompanying whiteout conditions – are extremely rare.

On Nov. 17, a giant windstorm struck the Inland Northwest. Two weeks later, it was calm with high temperatures in the 60s.

And though Spokane and Seattle are located at similar latitudes, the Emerald City’s close proximity to the Pacific Ocean generally keeps it cloaked in mild, moist air. We, on the other hand, experience four distinct seasons.

But rather than having snow accumulating on the ground all winter, we get snow and it melts. Instead of having a solid week of downpour, we get showers with breaks. Before dinner, we see drizzle out the window. By bedtime, it’s snow.

A big climatic driver for our region is the 10,000-foot-high barrier of the Cascade Range. Damp ocean air masses and weather systems carried by westerly winds lose much of their punch over the mountains before descending on eastern Washington.

Even so, gaps in the range can act as channels for strips of wind and precipitation to get here that sometimes build in strength along the way. Such was the case on Nov. 17 when near-hurricane-force winds slammed into the Inland Northwest, shearing rooftops and leveling hundreds of trees.

While variable weather might keep us on our toes with all of its zigs and zags, one thing remains as certain as crocuses blooming in March – our weather never gets boring.


Weathercatch is a bimonthly column published in the Spokesman Review