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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 03/ 4/2010

Believe it or not, D.C.'s is a climate to relish

By Don Lipman

* Warm-up coming: Full Forecast | Snow season over? | CWG T-Shirts! *


It's been a rough winter for many. Photo submitted to washingtonpost.com gallery by dbking85.

Clearly, for many of you who have had to deal with roof collapses, ice dams and power outages, not to mention scores of other hardships and inconveniences associated with the weather since December, this has been the "winter of your discontent," to partially quote Shakespeare.

Given we are still, at least technically, in the midst of Washington's snowiest winter on record, you may have trouble believing that we actually have it pretty good here in the D.C. area relative to other parts of the country. Now seems as good a time as any to prove this point, especially as the weather begins to turn more pleasant.

Exhibit A is New England's "mud season."

Some time ago, a story appeared in the Washington Post that vividly described the phenomenon known in New England as "mud season." The article portrayed the plight -- made worse after the previous winter's horrendous weather -- of Vermonters traversing the countless hills and dirt roads of the Green Mountain State during this fifth season of the year, when winter has finally ended, but real spring has yet to come.

I especially liked the story of the two farmers sitting on the porch, who happened to notice the hat of a certain neighbor bobbing back and forth along the road as it headed toward their farmhouse. On closer inspection, they find that, as suspected, it's Frank underneath the hat. Approaching his destination, Frank yells out, "No problem. I'm on my horse."

The tale illustrates the price that many New Englanders sometimes pay for an unusually harsh winter. (Mud seasons are at their worst after a long, cold winter during which a foot or more of frozen soil builds up. As the top layers thaw, the bottom layer, still frozen, prevents the moisture from draining away. The result is -- you guessed it -- BIG TIME mud.)

By comparison, Washingtonians, for all our grumbling about the cruel hand dealt by Mother Nature this winter, have never seen real mud. For that matter, we are fortunate here not to have experienced many of the meteorological and geological upheavals that occur with regularity in many other parts of the country and the world.

Yes, we occasionally (more than occasionally this winter) do have blizzards exceeding one or even two feet. But in an entire season, on average, we usually see just over 15 inches of snow at Reagan National Airport and just over 21 inches at Dulles.

We have also had several-inch rainstorms, but on average we only have 2-4 inches of rain per month. Furthermore, since most of our precipitation comes in relatively heavy bursts, our 39 inches of annual precipitation falls on less than one of every three days. By comparison, Portland, Oregon, which actually receives slightly less rainfall than our area, receives, according to one source, at least some moisture on one of every two days, due to the many drizzly, foggy, days in that region. That's more than 240 dry days annually here but only about 157 in Portland.

Each spring and summer we also have our share of severe thunderstorms, sometimes accompanied by hail and even an occasional tornado. But by Midwest standards, these are usually tame, even though they sometimes do cause considerable damage.

In addition, each year we're faced with at least the threat of tropical storms, but rarely full-blown hurricanes, which usually skirt the coastline. Although there have been exceptions, e.g., Hurricane Hazel in October 1954, which brought 98 mph winds here, most of those that do move inland rapidly lose their punch even if the leftover rains from these systems do sometimes cause significant flooding. Despite this threat, during an August heat wave (nice to think about now) it's not uncommon for farmers to cast a weather eye southeastward, looking for the first signs of a drought-breaking tropical storm.

In the thermal department, although by no means do we enjoy a tropical paradise, most would say that we have an invigorating, rather than an extreme, climate. Most people, that is, who were not raised in either the deep South or the North Country. While Washington's temperatures have soared to as high as 106F and plummeted to -15F, such extremes are rare. The former was 80 years ago and the latter, 41 years before that. (The last sub-zero reading at Reagan National Airport was Jan. 19, 1994, when it was -4F.) More typically, July's average high and low are 88F and 70F, and January's are 43F and 28F.

And finally, although the East Coast lacks immunity from earthquakes, forest fires, landslides or floods, seldom are these as catastrophic as the first three often are (and have recently been) in California or the last is in the Midwest.

All in all, I believe Robert Beverley had it right when, in 1703, he wrote about the climate of Virginia (which probably could have included Washington and eastern and southern Maryland as well): "Their winters are very short, and don't continue above three or four months, of which they have seldom thirty days of unpleasant weather, all the rest being blest [sic] with a clear air, and a bright Sun ... Their rains, except in the depth of winter, are extremely agreeable and refreshing."

By Don Lipman  | March 4, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Lipman, Local Climate  
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Comments

"The article portrayed the plight...of Vermonters traversing the countless hills and dirt roads of the Granite State during this fifth season of the year"

Vermont is the Green Mountain State, my friend. Next door neighbor New Hampshire is the Granite State.

Posted by: JSDragonslayer | March 4, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

As a native Californian who has lived in both northern and southern California, I would say you're nuts. The winters are wetter and colder, the summers hotter and wetter. We go from snow season to thunderstorm season.

Your primary complaint against CA appears to be catastrohic events. One of which, earthquakes, isn't climate related.

Post Fail.

Posted by: oldtimehockey | March 4, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

@oldtimehockey
We don't have the Santa Annas with their associated Fire Season...

Posted by: wiredog | March 4, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Why Washington, DC is classified as being in a "subtropical" weather zone is beyond me. "Subtropical" suggests palm trees, live oaks, spanish moss, etc. There is (or used to be) a small stand of cypress trees in southern P.G. county and you might find the odd loblolly pine in Washington (loblollies do thrive down at Pax River NAS). But except for some sweltering days in July-Aug, the weather here is definitely not subtropical. Wilmington, NC, and further south? Yes, that's subtropical. Norfolk? I reckon. D.C.? No.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | March 4, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

@JSDragonslayer

Thanks for catching that. It's been fixed.

Posted by: CapitalWeatherGang | March 4, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

JerryFloyd1--I have 22 palms in my yard-- all winter hardy, and some live oaks live in this area as well, but you're right, DC is not subtropical.

Posted by: steske | March 4, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

After moving to DC from the Midwest, I took tornado warnings and severe thunderstorm warnings very seriously, to the point of sheltering away from windows. (Severe thunderstorms in the Midwest can easily blow your windows out of their frames.)

Of course, then I realized that most "severe" weather in the DC area is completely inconsequential; therefore, now I only start worrying when things are getting obviously bad outside.

Posted by: stuckman | March 4, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I absolutely agree! I think if you could look up seasons in the dictionary, it should say "See DC", when it is time for spring, it comes.

I grew up in California and have been asked many times if I miss the weather, to which I always answer a hearty NO. It was really really boring. It is just awful to know that no rain could possible fall from May to October. That you could never get a big rumbly thunderstorm or a snowstorm. Christmas is warm...I don't want to offend any Californians, I know lots of people who love the weather and the fact that you can be outdoors year around, and I do miss that. It is just how I feel, I like textbook seasons.

I love that here we get the seasons, but only in moderation. I have noticed that the one thing that really makes Washingtonians grumpy is when things don't change. When things go on and on...we need our 65 degree day now and I'm sure it is just around the corner.

-Katie

Posted by: ThinkGreen | March 4, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I laughed so hard when I read this. I grew up two miles down a dirt road in Vermont. Four feet of snow? Not a problem! Four feet of mud? Oh boy. Your car can get stuck quicker than you'd except, loose a tire when you hit a pot hole, and you learn to aim for the ridges. Also - slow doesn't work - you need momentum.

Funny enough - this applies to DC driving as well.

Posted by: hereandnow1 | March 4, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

@wiredog,

I'll take few days of 103 degrees with 12 percent humidity over our August of 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity any day of the week.

Posted by: oldtimehockey | March 4, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

HEY CWG-----

After the back to back storms, you posted a pic of a big pile of snow in some parking lot, and asked us to vote "How long will it be before it melts".

I dont recall seeing any updates since then. Has it melted? Are you still monitoring it??? Just curious - thanks.

Posted by: SJ43560 | March 4, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

@steske, I should have clarified what I meant by palms, since some varieties can grow as far north as Connecticut. I was thinking about the sabal palm and the varieties that thrive in California.

Re: live oaks, I'm surprised they grow in this area. I've read they can be found on Assateague Island, though I've never seen one there. But azeleas can now be found as far north as Chicago and decidious magnolias grow in sheltered places in NYC, and years ago, I remember seeing a cypress at the National Arborteum. So it's possible live oaks could grow here.

Just please don't tell me that slash pine grows hereabouts, because I moved to D.C. from Florida partly to escape the subtropical flora.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | March 4, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

There are live oaks at the National arboretum. One species of palm I grow is a Sabal, but Sabal minor, more of a shrub..

Posted by: steske | March 4, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

@Steske, I just checked the sabal minor range and they can indeed grow as far north as coastal areas of CT and RI.

@CWG, what is the spring tree pollen forecast, esp. after this winter?

I, and colleagues who are allergic to pollen, are already feeling it, big time. If you can coax a snowstorm here for St. Patrick's Day, would help for a few days! (And, Walter might sculpt a leprechaun...)

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | March 4, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I've lived in two places, western Wisconsin and the Republic of Panama, representing the two extremes on the D.C. climate scale:

In Wisconsin you have winter temperatures down to -30F with wind chills as low as minus-fifty, but those Northwoods summers are great. Like Vermont and New Hampshire, there's the "snowmelt freshet" just before real spring arrives the first week of April. November can be very dull cloudy and foggy in the thirties/forties just before the first snow hits around the twentieth. In Wisconsin, folks ["Cheeseheads"] just follow the Packers and debate whether they'll have a "tracking snow" before the end of the musket & rifle deer season [which ends aoa Nov. 25], while enjoying a Leinies or a Miller at the local watering hole.

In Panama the situation differs. Here we have a true Monsoon climate. The temperature varies little; the humidity is high. Dry season begins after the poinsettias bloom in October/November and by Thanksgiving the afternoon showers are starting to become less violent. By Christmas they are light, ["lluvias ligeras aisladas" is the official term, or light & isolated], and by New Years Day, dry season is here for good. Because the daytime temperature is higher [33 Celsius or 91 Fahrenheit] this is called "verano" or "summer" by the locals, though we're still nine degrees NORTH of the Equator and hence in Northern Hemisphere winter. By the time of "Carnaval" [Mardi Gras] it's beginning to get dry & dusty, and it stays that way through Lent. After Easter we get the first stirrings of the upcoming wet season or "winter", and the rains return sometime after mid-April. Wet season continues while increasing in intensity until the second week or so of November; this is the Panamanian "invierno" or "winter". The afternoon showers "lluvias" become "chubascos" [squalls], "tronadas" [thunderstorms] or "tormentas electricas" [heavy thunderstorms], and occasionally passing tropical waves provide prolonged rainy periods. However at the Ninth Parallel, the location of the Panama Canal, hurricanes are rare, though the rare tropical storm may brush the Caribbean side of the Isthmus as Mitch did during the mid-1990s. In late November or early December, the first appearance of "El Norte" [the "norther"] heralds the next dry season to come.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | March 4, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

JerryFloyd1,
if we get 3"+ around st. pat's day, i'll make a leprechaun!

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 4, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Mud season- you all need to leave the friendly confines of your Condo canyons and get out beyond the beltway.

Nothing worse than urban or suburban bound weather forecasters.

For the last 2 weeks we have had a mud season and expect it to last through this week and maybe into next week.

My herding friends near Lynchburg, out in the valley and in Se Fauquier all are experiencing a mud season. we normally do.

Heck my bro in Clifton has a mud season.

Posted by: sheepherder | March 4, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

@Walter, I'm getting a bag of ice for a St. Patrick's Day snow. A tray of ice cubes doesn't work. However, I will have to let the ice melt before I flush, so I don't know if that negates the snow mojo.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | March 4, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Walter,
Saw this on the news this a.m. and now on-line. Figured you probably did as well. Couldn't help think about you! At least your sculptures didn't get any negative press!! ; )

http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/35709463/ns/today-today_people?GT1=43001

Posted by: worldtraveler83 | March 4, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

worldtraveler83,
i LOVE that you saw a sculpture and thought of me! way cool. nice sculpture, btw.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 4, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

In West Texas, there are several days a year when the wind blows 60 mph. Sometimes, it picks up dirt from the barren cotton field and swoops it into a thundercloud. There it mixes with moisture and causes it to LITERALLY rain droplets of mud. With the blowing dirt and mud falling from the sky, there is never any reason to wash your car.

Posted by: Hensleys | March 4, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

One of the things I love about this area is the fact that we have four well defined seasons. In New England on the other hand, where my Old Man attended College (Also where his family originally came from in the 17th Century), they only have two seasons, Winter and Summer lol.

I have run into Supercells out in the Great Plains when I was a kid on a family cross-country drive years ago (One of which produced a massive tornado, that miraculously pulled-up before getting near us, and dropped back down once it passed. We were huddled in a McD's, and my Father reassured me that God wouldn't destroy McDonald's, because he likes his Big Macs LOL.), not to mention the multiple times we've outrun twisters in various locations. I drove straight into TS Faye in Florida back in 2008 (I stayed up all night filming it once I got there, and I even managed to record the noise of the tornadoes on the beach not 100 yards away at night). I have basically been, and sometimes even purposely gone into severe weather events, simply so I could experience them. My family has experienced even more of such, with my Father having been in Typhoons and Nor'Easters while out at sea in his Destroyer, the USS Frank E. Evans. My Mother experienced the tropics while in Panama as a child, and the epic snowstorms in the D.C. area decades ago.

All in all, my varied Meteorological experiences not only lead me towards my absolute fascination with the subject, but it also made me so glad to live in this area relative to such. I despise the extremely humid Summers we sometimes have here, and I much prefer New England Summer weather, but I sincerely appreciate the full seasons which we are blessed with, as well as the relatively mild severe weather (Or possibly better phrased as "rare" severe weather events) which we go through annually.

Posted by: TheAnalyst | March 4, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

@Hensleys, the same thing occurs where my cousin lives in Mallorca, Spain. I visited her once, and every morning which we awoke after a thunderstorm, the cars were completely PLASTERED with mud. The dirt emanated all the way across the Mediterranean, from the Sahara Desert itself. It was pretty cool to think of it like that.

Posted by: TheAnalyst | March 4, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

Here in Salt Lake City, Utah, we get mud-rain too, but it's mixed with SALT from the Great Salt Lake Desert to the west of the city, and from the lake itself. What a mess!! You HAVE to wash your car or it rusts to pieces. BTW, I've been watching your historic snowstorms with envy--we always get dry, dry, dry El Nino years here. We're currently coming up on 3.5" behind the water year average.

@CWG--Looooove your site and your work, and wish we had something like it here (though NOAA does a great job)!

@Walter--Do you post pics of your sculptures online? I'd love to see them, especially since we haven't had enough snow here to sneeze at lol!

Posted by: weatherwhisperer | March 4, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

weatherwhisperer,
here they are:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/58171957@N00/
so, if you could whisper a bit more snow this way, i can add to the collection!

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 5, 2010 6:46 AM | Report abuse

SJ43560: I will check on the snow pile that was posted last month and report back -- http://voices.washingtonpost.com/capitalweathergang/2010/02/tracking_the_towering_snow_pil.html

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | March 5, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

kevin,
i think the longest lasting snow pile is going to be one that's in the shade somewhere - like the one i've heard of "under the wilson bridge". there's one at a strip mall shopping center in annandale that's between two buildings. must be in shade all day long because it's still huge. it still practically fills the space between the buildings.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 5, 2010 7:49 AM | Report abuse

@ wiredog

So long as you're not living out in a canyon country, aren't all that bad. They warm the air and cause breaking waves to stand up.

Posted by: mason08 | March 5, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

It's all what you're used to.

Me? I'd deal with a few days of mud (not so bad in Mass.) in exchange for not having to deal with those 95 and humid days we get on end many summers. And snow. Glorious snow. Every winter, not just once every seven years, like locusts.

Posted by: ah___ | March 5, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Love the article, although I have to disagree that an August heat wave is nice to think about now.

There's a joke: "Don't like the weather in D.C.? Wait 5 minutes (it'll change)"

That's what I like, what ThinkGreen said about variety. It's a cliché that talking about the weather is just small talk, a way to fill up time -- not around here, the weather is usually a legitimately interesting subject. Changeable without being extreme, or at least, extreme doesn't come too often or last very long.

And yeah ... a pollen-cast would be very welcome, especially if it could break out major species (dreading oak)

Posted by: ChickenLady | March 6, 2010 7:39 AM | Report abuse

As another native Californian who's lived both north and south, this guy's nuts.

"As a native Californian who has lived in both northern and southern California, I would say you're nuts. The winters are wetter and colder, the summers hotter and wetter. We go from snow season to thunderstorm season."

For example, none of Northern California's four seasons, namely smog, forest fire, landslide, and so-cold-in-summer-that-you-can't-sit-outside-without-a-parka, has quite the romance of a blooming cherry tree, summer night thunderstorm, turning leaves, or first snowfall. Southern California, of course, just has the first three but at least you can sit outside in July without frostbite.

In line with most Californians, this guy has convinced himself that the PR version of California is the reality.

Posted by: kriscolby | March 6, 2010 8:02 AM | Report abuse

@ Walter--your work is AMAZING! what an artist you are! I especially love all of the sea life, "Scat" and that woodpecker. And they're huge!! What kinds of tools do you use? How long does a single figure take on average?

As far whispering snow goes, I tried, but it boomeranged--we woke up to 10" Friday! (Of course out at the airpost, they only had 2.) But I can't really apologize, because we needed it soooo badly up at our end of the state. Southern Utah locations got 300% and 600% of normal water in February (no, those are not typos) while we got 38%. Dismal way to run a desert--oh, wait; this IS a desert lol!

I'll try whispering again, but from what I read, you guys may be headed for warm weather at last....

Posted by: weatherwhisperer | March 8, 2010 3:02 AM | Report abuse

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