PRECIPITATION IN THE NORTHWEST

by Leigh Calvez, Spring 2019

Photos & video by John F. Williams except where noted

PRECIPITATION IN THE NORTHWEST

By Leigh Calvez, Summer 2019

Photos &  video by John F. Williams except where noted

as a transplanted midwesterner, i am fascinated by the precipitation here in the pacific northwest

​While writing this essay, I imagined sitting in my chair where I work, watching the rain falling outside and hitting the window with a “plink” every now and again. I so appreciate the rainy days that encourage me to stay inside to read or write. But Mother Nature had other intentions for this winter’s precipitation and Northwesterners around Puget Sound experienced the snowiest February on record since 1916 when Seattle recorded 35.4 inches of snow.

By the end of four snowstorms in little more than a week, 20.2 inches of snow had fallen at SeaTac Airport, where such things have been measured and recorded since 1945. February 2019 now stands as the fourth snowiest month on record. January 1950 holds the record for the snowiest month with 57.2 inches. I like snow, but I hoped we wouldn’t break that record. ​

Photo by Leigh Calvez
Photo by Joel Sackett
Photo by Joel Sackett

As I sat down to write, I watched with glee as snow covered the ground and piled higher. I had been trapped at home, unable to drive, for nearly four days, making cookies, baking bread, and taking the occasional walk around the neighborhood to check out driving conditions on the snowy streets should I need to get out. That is not something I can say about rain. I have never been trapped at home by rain. Not even in 2017 when we had 145 days of measurable rain during the wettest October through April period since weather records began in 1894. Or in 2006, when we nearly broke the 1953 record of 33 straight days of rain. I did not rush to the grocery store to stock up on a week’s worth of food. ​

Photo by Joel Sackett

Or sit stuck at home tucked under a blanket, watching movies. We may not know much about how to deal with snow in the lowlands around the Salish Sea. But when it comes to rain, we have it down.

​In the 25 years I have lived in the area, I have learned to behave like a true Northwesterner, accepting the coming of rain like the rising of the sun. Growing up in Ohio, I learned to run for shelter from the Midwestern rainstorms that moved in across the plains, gathering strength from humidity and dumping enough rain to flood streets in mere minutes or a few hours. With an average of 77 days of precipitation per year and an annual rainfall total of about 41 inches per year—compared to the average 154 days of rain totaling 37.18 inches of average rainfall per year around Seattle—more rain falls near my childhood home in half the time. ​​

​Around Puget Sound, rain is a more constant companion.

Foggy, white mist hangs rather than falls from the sky. Steady, daylong showers tap on leaves in a peaceful rhythm. Sprinkles fall from sunny skies, sending rainbows to the horizon. Seattle sees only five days per year with an inch or more of rain from the heavy downpours that lash against windows and blow sideways in fierce winds. Over the years, I have learned to blend in here, walking calmly from the house or store to the car, head down, as if walking between drops. Occasionally I put my hood up, but I hardly ever use an umbrella.

So, I was surprised, as were my many of my fellow Salish Sea residents, by the snow totals we received in these February storms. Normally, snow in the lowlands is as rare as sun in January. Except for many of the Salish Sea islands and the Kitsap Peninsula, which is almost an island, we depend on our mountains — the Olympics to the west and the Cascades to the east — to capture and hold the snow as part of our freshwater supply. Mountain snow is nature’s natural storage system. The mountains hold a large supply of water in snowpack, frozen solid until the summer months when it melts and flows into rivers like the Snohomish, Skokomish, the Skagit, the Bogachiel, the Queets, and the Elwah.

Photo by John Gussman
Photo by John Gussman

There is little mountain snow does not touch. The salmon that feed our beloved orcas once lived and bred in mountain snowmelt. We drink it. Water our lawns, trees, and plants with it. We even wash our cars with it. Eighty percent of the electricity we use to power our computers, phones, refrigerators, and heaters in Washington State comes from river power. The hydroelectricity is produced mainly along the Columbia River, with its headwaters in an area of mountain snow called the Columbia Icefield located between Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. Snow is really energy stored in the form of ice crystals.

Of course, rain contributes greatly to the power from raging rivers. Chinese scientists are working on another way to benefit directly from falling rain. Using solar panels — once as anti-rain as Northwesterners after weeks of gray, drizzly weather — the scientists have devised a system that, in addition to sunlight, collects the energy from the friction generated as rain hits and slides across a solar panel. Within three to five years, we could see this invention here in the rainy Northwest.​

Photo by Nancy Sefton

After years of living here in the Puget Sound region, I have grown accustomed to the rhythm of the seasons. I recognize the arrival of spring in February and the flowers, like crocuses and daffodils, that begin to bloom. I embrace the warm, dry summer weather. And I now anticipate the dark, rainy weather almost with longing, as a way to soothe my increasing grumpiness as low pressure moves in. I have noticed myself feeling uncomfortable and out-of-sorts if the storms blowing off the Pacific along the Pineapple Express do not materialize in October and November. I have come to count on the reliability of rain.​

There seems to be some scientific evidence to explain my longing for rain. There are hidden benefits to rain and falling snow that we can’t see. When water moves, in the form of rain, falling snow, crashing ocean waves, or warm bathroom showers, negative ions (ions with a negative charge rather than “bad” ions) are separated from heavier, positive ions that fall to earth. These negative ions float because they are lighter and are thought to “lift” our mood, increase alertness, and enhance relaxation. It’s why we love the beach in rain or shine or why a warm shower produces so many great ideas.

The precipitation around the Salish Sea is as varied as the emotions we feel about it. Whether we enjoy it, complain about it, or hold any feelings in between, we depend on the water in all its falling forms, from the liquid that soaks through our clothes to the frozen, white crystals that decorated the region last February. Only a few degrees of temperature or elevation shape the form with which we are blessed. ​

Leigh Calvez is a naturalist and nature writer. She studied humpback whales in Massachusetts and on Maui, Hawaii along with spinner dolphins on the Big Island of Hawaii. As a naturalist, she has led whale watching tours around the world to places like the Azores, New Zealand and British Columbia. Her interest in the natural world led her to nature writing and her first book “The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds”. Leigh’s essay about her adventures in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia was published in “American Nature Writing 2003” by Fulcrum Books. Her work was also published in an anthology for Sierra Club Books entitled “Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond”. Leigh’s essays have also appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, High Country News, The Ecologist, Ocean Realm, The Christian Science Monitor, The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Her second book, “The Breath of a Whale: The Science and Spirit of Pacific Ocean Giants,” from Sasquatch Books was just released in March 2019.

Table of Contents, Issue #3, Spring 2019